from butter heads to the big pig: welcome to the minnesota state fair

Are there any events, festivals, or fairs that you make it your business to be at yearly, or at least as frequently as possible?

One such bundle of shenanigans exists that I feel just that way about, and – horror of horrors – it had been three years since my last visit. I righted this wrong on August 26th.


I often try to sell East Coast folks on the amazingness that is the Middle West of America. This is especially true for my home state of Minnesota. All the corn and soybean fields you can dream of? Check. All the lakes you can count, plus 5,000 more (taking a cue from Minnesota’s license plate, labeled as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” …. when there are actually over 15,000) Anyway, all those lakes, many surrounded by cabins and loaded with motorboats and jet skis? Check. The sad-sack Mall of America? Check. The home of Paul Bunyan? That’s debatable – but I say check. Take that, Wisconsin, Maine, and all of Canada.

One of the most amazing things about Minnesota is their two-week festival leading up to Labor Day. The Great Minnesota Get-Together.

The Minnesota State Fair. Check.

The fair is an amazing 320 acres of deep-fried foods on-a-stick that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly. In 2009, an all-time attendance record was set, with 1,790,497 visitors in that sinfully delicious two-week period. This year it was a measly 1,769,872, with my family contributing to 2.26 e-6 of the total visitor numbers. That’s almost the entire population of Maine, folks. That’s meta.

While I won’t talk about the foods we ate here – I’ll reserve that for an especial post of it’s own, coming soon – I will talk about the animals we saw, humans included. Animals are a big deal at fair, perhaps because it’s the only time that city kids and their country bumpkin counterparts bond together peacefully. Growing up a city suburb kid, it was one of the only times all year that I would get to encounter chickens and ducks, have stand-offs with sheep and cows, and coo over beautiful ponies.

Now that I’m somewhat grown and have milked goats and babysat sheep, as well as continued to coo over beautiful ponies, I appreciate the visibility of animals at the fair to other urban and suburban kids such as myself, giving them the same chance I had to become fascinated with creatures wild and tamed – outside of a James Herriot book.

The fair plays host to rabbits, geese, a whole pond of native fish (props to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources), and one big pig (above, center left). Each year, a new boar is crowned as head big pig. During his tenure, he gets to lay around, hot and bothered-like, looking and feeling fat. This year’s champ was a wee bit over 1,400 pounds, and what a looker.

The fair’s definition of animals is widely encompassing. In addition to the cuddly, at-times dangerously heavy barn animals that we all know and love, the fair also includes a section of mechanical animals. Trucks, trailers, farm equipment odds and ends, and Stihl chainsaws are all sold at the fair. Not in the traditional sense, per se: you won’t see a Ford F-150 being driven off the lot by a pot-bellied old man, struggling to navigate streets clogged with the fair’s other animals – humans. All of these products are on-site, and are promoted by their eager employees. I see how the idea works, I do. Spending a day eating, walking, eating, sitting, eating, looking at trucks, eating, and after food coma recovery, all positive memories of the endless fried foods reinforce the desire to buy that beefy truck prominently displayed at the fair’s north end, up on Machinery Hill.

More on those human-variety animals.

One of the most curious attractions at the Minnesota State Fair (not the big pants – they no longer exist, or the giant slide, or the biggest pumpkin, or the big two-wheeled ferris wheel that brought me to tears while riding it this year) is the butter heads. Located in the Dairy building that now houses many things strikingly non-dairy, the butter heads are the work of artisan buttercrafter Linda Christensen, a graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design who has carved 451 heads of butter over the past 40 years.

12 finalists in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition, a goodwill pageant for ladies from dairy families across the state, are memorialized in 90-lb blocks of butter, carved live and in person, as they grin and wave from beneath their hefty parkas in a rotating glass-walled refrigerator. One of the lucky ladies is crowned as Princess Kay; the current princess’ butter head (that of Mary Zahurones) is shown near the top of the page, while the butter head being sculpted in the following photos is that of finalist Kelsey Sellner.

The butter heads are a pretty big deal at the fair. However, if neither butter nor cheese interest you, worry not. You can head straight for the meat judging. Live…. or dead.

Coming up soon: from walleye cakes to cream cheese-stuffed fried pickles, we feasted like kings at the fair this year. Upon returning home, our food coma prompted us to make a list of everything we ate, and everything we’d like to eat on our next visit. And no, we sadly didn’t feel the need to purchase an F-150.

The Minnesota State Fair

Minnesota State Fairgrounds
1265 Snelling Ave N
St Paul, MN 55108

Twelve days of fun ending Labor Day – Next year’s dates:

August 23rd through September 3rd, 2012

6h00 – 24h00 (22h00 on Labor Day)


21 thoughts on “from butter heads to the big pig: welcome to the minnesota state fair

    1. sarah: Were you to have your head sculpted in butter, good news! It would be packaged up and sent home with you post-fair, where you could keep it, happily, in your deep freeze forever. Or, you could carve up sections to serve at your Thanksgiving table. Yummy.

  1. 1. My grandma’s physio is from Minnesota :) If Minnesota was teh same as Canberra, you two would know each other.

    2. That horse/pony’s coat looks like it’s patterned with stars, and that makes me happy.

    3. Take me here. Sometime. Eventually.

    1. Hannah, 1) Is he from Minnesota, or is he from Minnesota? There is a world famous, or perhaps, world appreciated medical clinic in the southern part of the state, located dangerously near the SPAM factory I toured last winter. By dangerously near I mean not very near. Anyway, medical people seem to migrate to and from there at an alarming rate!

      2) That horse was BEAUTIFUL. He was so tall (I’m not sure how many hands high, as he was busy getting groomed and being tall), such a large and beautiful horse!

      3) Oh ya sure, you betcha:)

  2. I have never been to the Minnesota State Fair. There is something about one million people passing through the same space over a two week period that terrifies me. True story. The deliciousness on a stick couldn’t even convince me to go when I lived in Wisconsin. Or the butter heads. Or the big pig.

    Paul Bunyan is totally from Minnesota.

    I listened to Prairie Home Companion at the State Fair last weekend! Linda Christensen spoke about her butterheads. It was lovely.

    1. Brianne, crowds usually bug me a bit, too. But this is a really big “same space,” I promise. Although… I unfortunately didn’t capture the fields upon fields of bodies rolling down one of the avenues in a midafternoon swelter, which would have scared you away before you finished reading this.

      I hear the big pig had to go home before the fair was over – he got sick:(

      I’ve been working hard in the past year or two to like Prairie Home Companion, but it’s been a challenge. It just bothers me! I do wish I could have heard the Linda Christensen bit, as I read that she was with them at the Grandstand. Mmmmmmm, overstuffed fair.

      1. Truth: It’s the only full episode of Prairie Home Companion I’ve ever listened to. I just wanted to hear about the fair. I can’t listen to it otherwise.

        1. Ahh, interesting. You’re not a fan either – you may be the first of our kind (or second, counting me) that I’ve met. But whenever I talk smack about PHC, I love to follow it up by saying “But I love his books!”

    1. julene, ha! you wish!

      But at the large group sing-along thing near the pet building and the Xtreme teen skate park (so sad I can’t angstily hang out there any more!), people banded together over fan favorite “Pour some sugar on me.”


  3. I never visited the mid west, but sure would love to check out this state fair. This is so much like our “Ekka” that runs for about 2 weeks every August. Not sure how I feel about the not butter or cheese heads though! ;)

    1. Julia: A fair in the winter-time, eh? After looking this Ekka thing up, I am intrigued, and want to follow the Ekka trail of learning! Sick…. Wolfmother played this year?

      It all sounds classy and exciting…but… really, what are showbags??

  4. You do us proud, girl! Wonderful essay, expose(accent mark where are you?), you wrote us up real nice! LOVED the photo of the cow barn, one of my special favorite places at the fair; and that horse with the leaves worked into his/her coat, the most amazing and beautiful coat that I have ever seen.

    1. Mum, just wait until I get to the food post! At that point, I might do us embarrassed, more than proud;)

      I was pleased with how that cow barn photo came out, I’m glad I spent some time trying for a good image. I think it captures the essence of that building nicely.

      And oh, that horse. He may indeed have been the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen! EVER!

  5. I’m jealous that you got to go to the Minnesota State Fair. I used to go every single year when I was younger. Ever since college though, I haven’t been able to :(
    I love the butter sculptures, the animal barns, the craft buildings, the fish pond, the DNR building, the Cream Puffs (best food at the fair… well, the homemade fries and snowcones are great too), the ferris wheel, the haunted house that I have yet to make it through, and the FIREWORKS!!
    Maybe next year I will get to go again. Glad you got to enjoy it though.

    1. Charlotte Rose, I have a fondness for the cream puffs, too. Unfortunately, the stomachs of others weren’t quite the champions that mine was, and I couldn’t interest them in the cream puffs this year:(

      So sad that you haven’t been able to go in recent years. I realized that I hadn’t been in three years (I think), which is way way way way way too too too too too lonnnnnnnnng.

      The haunted house creeps me out SO MUCH. I do like hearing the fireworks from my parents’ house – as I fall asleep with the window open:) And the fish pond is one of my all-time favorites!

      1. I used to live really close to the fairground, so I got to watch the fireworks from my window every single night that the fair was open. So yeah, I was basically living any child’s dream for two weeks out of the year. Also, my brother and I would go to the fish pond right after they drained it in the fall and collect the money people had thrown in. We “made” 40 dollars one year, which we promptly spent on Pokemon cards if I recall correctly.

        1. This is the most exciting, seemingly random, comment I’ve ever received, for two reasons:

          1) We clearly grew up roughly four miles from each other, and

          2) Now I know who stole all my change! I also used to go to the fish pond and collect the money people had thrown in (with my poppa pop). As I got older, however, the money started disappearing before I could get to it…. it must have been YOU!:)

  6. Butter heads?? Creepytown. I always mean to go to the Texas State Fair up in Dallas and eat ridiculous fried things. I especially love the photo of that ride near the top!

    1. Jessica, most definitely NOT creepytown! Cutetown. Tastytown. Fatteningtown. These are all appropriate substitutions for your slanderous language.


      I definitely didn’t go on that ride in the photo you mentioned. But it was right next to the double ferris wheel that made me cry. So I’m scared of this one too, by proxy.

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