For months before the gates open for throngs of Minnesota State Fair-goers, some local residents are planning their foray to the fair. But mapping out food stands, scoping exhibition sites and plotting prime parking spots are not on their to-do lists. These folks have recipes and designs on their minds—in hopes of coming home with a ribbon or two in their state fair swag bags.
“The Minnesota State Fair’s agricultural and creative competitions drew more than 30,000 entries in 2016 with competitors vying for a share of ribbons, trophies and more than $1.4 million in prize money,” says Lara Hughes, communications supervisor for the fair. “Competitions included events for livestock, horses, school projects, dog trials, baked and canned goods, fruit, vegetables, crafts, bee and honey products, fine arts, farm crops, flowers, butter, cheese and more.”
Deborah Johnson: Cookies
Deborah Johnson of Minnetonka is a veteran of the State Fair. “I’ve entered something each year for many years,” she says. “I enjoy the excitement, and love standing in line and chatting with all of the others. At this point, hope is high for everyone.”
While she’s entered items in several categories, from jellies to sewing pieces, Johnson most enjoys baking cookies. “I’ve won several ribbons but only two blue so far,” she says. “Last year, I won a blue ribbon for sugar cookies and a white ribbon for pepparkakor,” which are Swedish ginger cookies
Johnson has family ties with the fair competitions. “My grandma, Esther Johnson, and aunt Doris used to enter baked goods in the fair often,” she says. “They both won many prizes, even the sweepstakes purple ribbon.” Inspiration to learn baking came from her grandmother. “I started baking with my mom for 4-H and often helped my grandma,” she says, noting that she enjoys baking cookies and bars for church and family gatherings, especially around Christmas.
Johnson begins thinking about her entries in July. “I bake my cookies for the fair the day before the judging, because freshness is important,” she says. The pressure to make sure the baked goods turn out just right and choosing the best cookies to enter are ingredients in Johnson’s process. “Stress is part of the fun,” she says. “ I bake a batch and have a beauty contest.”
Sallie Skinner: Hooked Rugs
Sallie Skinner is three-for-three in her hooked rug submissions. The Minnetonka resident’s first piece, Celebration, was submitted in 2009. “Much to my surprise, it won the blue ribbon and the sweepstakes,” she says. What might have made the win even sweeter was that the piece’s design takes a page from Sidikiba’s Kora Lesson, an award-winning children’s book authored and illustrated by her son, Ryan Skinner.
After a 1996 rug hooking class, Skinner took a break from the craft until 2004. “My interest was piqued again, and I took another class,” she says. “I really took off with it at that point.” Skinner’s work features wide-cut or fine-cut elements. Depending on the piece, she uses monk’s cloth or linen for the backing.
Skinner submitted two pieces to the 2016 state fair and walked away with two blue ribbons and another sweepstakes win. Her Santa Claus piece is set to be featured in the August 2017 Celebration of Hand-Hooked Rugs, an internationally known publication that’s a juried exhibit of the year’s best pieces.
At the time of this interview, Skinner was still mulling over her submission for this year’s fair. Whatever it is, fairgoers probably won’t have any difficulty spotting Skinner’s work. “If anyone would describe my style, it would be
‘colorful,’ ” she says.
Lisa Galbraith Heyl: Handcrafted Baskets
Lisa Galbraith Heyl of Shorewood has participated in the state fair for the last two years. Last year, her piece Harlequin’s Riddle in Juxtaposition was entered in the Creative Activities’ Handcraft, Basketry-Plaited competition, where it took second premium place. It is a contemporary three-dimensional, woven fiber art sculpture/art basket using traditional basketry techniques. Harlequin actually has a riddle. “This piece is three-dimensional with multiple facets and has diamonds like you might find in a harlequin pattern,” Heyl explains. “So the riddle is: How many diamonds can you find?”
Heyl is considering several pieces for this year’s competition, including a twill cathead basket embellished with a hand-made necklace. She views the fair as “a kind of cross-pollinating vehicle. And it is exciting to see youth, as well as adults, be exposed to fine art and handcrafts at the state fair—planting seeds and encouraging future artists of all ages,” Heyl says.
After she began to enter juried exhibits, Heyl was motivated to be a part of the state fair competitions. “I like the idea of being involved on a state level and giving back to the community through artistic expressions,” she says.
Heyl has an artistic background; she began making jewelry in 2004 and weaving using basketry techniques in 2014. “For over 40 years, daily spiritual contemplations have inspired me to explore, create and become refined in many artistic expressions,” she says. “I enjoy surrendering to this co-creative partnership with all life—reinventing myself.”
Dave Carlson: Pickles
Dave Carlson’s competitive juices—albeit a bit briny—are flowing well before the fair opens. On and off since 2006, the Orono resident has submitted his dill pickle concoctions for judicial review. His dill pickles with garlic netted him blue ribbons in 2015 and 2016, and his dill pickles sans garlic came in second place last year. “When I got back-to-back ribbons, I thought, ‘This is nirvana,’ ” he says.
Carlson began canning pickles in 1992, thanks to his wife Lisa’s great-grandmother. Loving her pickles, Carlson says, “I thought, ‘If she could make them, then I’d tag along.’ ” He followed her process—for a while. “With time, I’ve added my own little twist to it,” Carlson says.
After registering for the fair in May, the process begins in earnest. “It’s a ritual,” Carlson says. “I kid you not.” He and Lisa get down to planning. “We talk about it all summer,” he says, noting the importance of following the fair’s guidelines to the letter. “It’s a real process.”
Carlson’s penchant for pickling isn’t reserved for fair days. Every year, he cans enough pickles to share much of his bounty with family, friends and some of his students at Chanhassen High School. He needn’t worry about running out—Carlson makes 250 quarts each year.
The 2017 State Fair runs August 24–September 4.
Find the results of this year’s competitions at the website here.