By Jaime DeLage
St. Paul Pioneer Press
One year it was the square yardstick.
Is a square yardstick better than a flat one? That’s not important. What was important at the Minnesota State Fair in 1977 was that you got to the Rochester Silo Co. booth for your yardstick, a square one with a leather wrist strap, really more of a walking stick than a measuring device.
The Rochester Silo yardsticks were almost too successful.
Chris Price worked the booth for his dad and uncle then, and he remembers the commotion when they sold the sticks for $1 apiece.
“I remember people lined up, not letting us leave, and the fair people telling us to shut down,” said Price, who now runs Rochester Concrete with his brothers. “I remember us trying to get into the truck and we couldn’t close the back because people kept demanding them. I remember going to our hotel room and we literally had duffle bags of cash. We would have bags of cash. … It became just this thing, this fad.”
Price’s dad, Jerry, now retired, said they sold about 50,000 sticks - he calls them “walking sticks” - the first year. The next year they charged $2 so they could turn a little profit to augm ent the marketing budget, and they still sold 50,000 or more.
“We used to make $50,000 a year just selling sticks,” Jerry Price said.
Their big mistake was not securing the exclusive right to sell square yardsticks at the State Fair, he said. Soon other booths had square yardsticks, too, and the fad faded.
It doesn’t happen every year. But every so often a breakout item comes along at the fair that everybody wants to have.
State Fair archivist Keri Huber and marketing and communications manager Brienna Schuette went through the archives to come up with this list of doodads and fads from fairs gone by.
Popular in the first half of the 20th century, many pennants had the name of a company such as Buick on them or you could get your name embroidered onto a commemorative State Fair pennant.
The carnival prize of choice in the first half of the 1900s was later retired in favor of the easier-to-carry stuffed animal. The State Fair sold its own chalkware Fairchild mascot piggy banks as a throwback in the 1970s or ’80s.
Little-known fact - State Fair vendors aren’t allowed to give away stickers, because they end up stuck to everything.
But fair vendors may decorate you with tattoos. Henna Art by Sole Shine received the People’s Choice award for best product or service at last year’s Fair.
Al Holte State Fair Pail
For years, Al Holte of South St. Paul gave away miniature milking buckets with the year and fair logo printed on them.
You could try to win a bear, as Ormand Pieffer did for daughter Marilyn in 1958, or later you could just buy one at Eddie’s Teddy Land - the Buy a Bear shop.
The first of these fun portrait booths came to the State Fair in 1964.
It has become common to see people walking around the fair with paper pickles, walleye or geese on their heads. The Minnesota Twins gave away paper hats in the 1960s, but the current fad probably started with the pink pig-eared hats in the 1990s at the Oink Booth.
Giveaway bags are the ultimate giveaway, because everybody else’s giveaway goes inside of them, Schuette said. She believes the WCCO bags were the first to really c atch on. More recently, people have lined up for the purple University of St. Thomas bags.
A giant pair of Lee denim overalls used to sway in the breeze on Machinery Hill, and you could get your own miniature pair sewn in the Grandstand.
Postcards and photos
Visiting the State Fair 100 years ago was a big adventure for most people, and they made sure to send postcards back home to the farm.
Patti Pate cut your profile in paper in the 1980s at Heritage Square. A new artisan, Simply Silhouettes, debuts this year at West End Market.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.
By Jaime DeLage