Aitkin County Fair Review
Aitkin County is Minnesota county with a population just over 16,000. Despite the fact that is the neighboring county to Carlton County, where I grew up, I have never attended their county fair. I usually attended the Carlton County Fair or a fair in St. Louis County. This year, I attended the Aitkin County Fair with my family. The fair was held early by fair standards (July 4-7th). I attended on Saturday, which was the final day of the fair. Here are my general impressions of the fair, though it may be an unfair assessment.
Most fairs charge a fee to enter. This was always true of the Carlton County Fair. The Aitkin County Fair costs nothing to attend! There is a $5 parking fee, but this is easily avoided if a person parks further away. This means that a person looking for free summer fun can wander around the fair at not cost. Of course, rides and food are a bit spendy, but a person could choose to spend nothing!
There were a variety of free activities for children. There was an entire building dedicated to free crafts for kids, where children could make noodle necklaces and spinners. My nephews did a few of the free crafts, but were less interested in other free activities such as viewing animals or learning more about farming in an interactive, children’s barn.
Another highlight of the fair was the tractor parade. There is something really fun about watching a parade of tractors. The drivers tended to be older men, but there were also some kids and women. The tractors followed the perimeter of the fairgrounds for a 20 minute parade that showcased the mostly older model tractors.
A Variety of Booths:
The Aitkin County Fair featured a two buildings of booths. My favorite booth was for the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This booth was selling guidebooks on a variety of topics at half price. I purchased a guide to ferns, a guide to moths, and a wildflower guide. I also purchased two half priced children’s books for my nephews on the topic of bats. I collected pamphlets from other booths on gardening in Minnesota, Minnesota trees, and pollinators- which may have come from booths for the DNR and University of Minnesota Extension. The Aitkin County History Society also had a building at the fair.
This doesn’t have much to do with the fair, but the mascot for the Aitkin schools is a turkey, since the area was once known for turkey farming and processing. Aitkin County once produced a half million turkeys each year and Land-o-Lakes operated a turkey processing plant in Aitkin until 1985. The school adopted the turkey mascot because of the importance of turkeys to Aitkin. Well, I think this is a great, unique mascot. I made a point of trying to find an Aitkin Gobbler T-shirt while in Aitkin, but I could only find one at a local thrift store. I purchased the shirt for $3, but was disappointed that it did not feature the image of a turkey. At the fair, there were only a few turkeys. One of them looked droopy and had an empty water dish, so I gave it some water (which it immediately stepped on and knocked over. Oh well, at least its foot was no longer dehydrated..) There are not many turkeys in Aitkin any more, but at least a few could be found at the fair and I found a Gobbler shirt. The range of wild turkeys is expanding, so it is more common to see wild turkeys in Aitkin and Carlton counties. So, perhaps the turkey will return as a wild and free bird. Fair organizers should really play up the importance of turkeys…
Fire and Rescue Table:
Aitkin County Fire and Rescue had an awesome table tucked away in the far northeast corner of the fair. The table gave away full sized bottles of water for free to combat heat exhaustion. We were all given at least one bottle of ice cold water. They also gave us vials of insect repellent and other free items related to staying safe. We were encouraged to take us much as we wanted. Maybe because of the isolated location of the table and the fact that it was the last day of the fair, we were given a large amount of free goodies.
The Banana Derby should probably go into the “con” category. It is one of those surprising things that seem out of place in this day and age. The attraction was literally a race between two dogs with monkeys riding on their backs. It was free to observe and money was made through promotional photographs with the monkeys. This didn’t seem right. Monkeys in sweaty, polyester jockey costumes holding on to dogs as they ran on a small track. Even if the dogs and monkeys are treated well, that sort of performance is probably stressful and tiring for the animals. Is this the worst offense of the fair? After all, animals are put on display for several days or served as food. This is a complicated issue, but there seemed like something distinctively exploitative about carting dogs and monkeys around the country and training them to race. Perhaps it is simply the unusual nature of this particular entertainment that calls into question the issue of animal treatment. I will say that whole thing was pretty surreal.
Lack of Produce:
Because the fair is held in early July, most gardens have not produced many crops as it it too early in the season. Tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplants, peppers, and so on tend to arrive later in late July and August. Thus, the fair did not have many vegetables on display. What could be done? Maybe people could be encouraged to enter peas, lettuce, or immature versions of the later season crops.
Not an actual photo from the fair…but my impression of the veggies…
While there was a building full of booths for organizations, there was another that was focused on businesses. These offered prizes to promote their business. These prizes seem a little scammy. For instance, I received a call that I was one of the finalists for a prize at the “Atkin” county fair. Considering that the caller did not know how to pronounce Aitkin, I felt that it was not a representative from a local business or a genuine prize. My brother also received a call regarding another prize, and it was clear that everyone who entered likely got a call from the business. The prize offerings seemed like a way to gather customer contact information to trick people into purchasing products and services.
Lack of Swag Bags:
While at the fair, I tend to collect various pamphlets and free things. Soon, my arms were full of books, pamphlets, and booklets. None of the booths offered any sort of bag to carry the items in…except…the Aitkin County Republican Party. I grabbed several bags and gave them to my family members. I didn’t mind carrying my stuff around in a bag that said “God Bless America- Aitkin County Republican Party” as I found it rather ironic. I didn’t feel ashamed, as it felt more like a prank or that I was a troll. Is this wrong? Should have I cared more? I would have felt more embarrassed with a Democrat bag, since at least that would seem halfway plausible to the rest of the world. A long story short, I guess I should have come prepared with a purse or backpack large enough to carry my loot.
Not an actual photo of the bag, but you get the idea…
The Aitkin County Fair is definitely a small fair. There aren’t huge crowds and it is easy to amble along, enjoying this slice of rural living. Rural life has been in a long decline, so there is a sense of emptiness at the fair. Still, there is a sample of what once was with barns of goats, rabbits, cows, turkeys, pigs, and chickens, even if there are only a few representatives of each. The few withered vegetable entries were sad, but on the other hand, there seemed to be robust interest in creating art, as the art barn had many entries. There are carnival rides, free activities for kids, organizations with booths, and of course, the tractor parade. There is also music, fireworks, tractor pulls, 4H demonstrations, and a magician. I did not partake in those events, but I am sure that each would add to the experience. As a whole, I think it was a charming fair and worth a visit precisely because it is a small town affair and because of the hard work the community puts into organizing it.