Sliding down 50 years of State Fair history

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Four people stand in front of a large slide
From left to right: Isabella Barona, Stacey Pitroff-Barona, Fred Pitroff and Anibella Barona. They're standing in front of the family's Giant Slide at the Minnesota State Fair.
Courtesy of the Barona family

Fred Pittroff didn't make the first Giant Slide. He just perfected it.

It took some trial and error before he built the one celebrating 50 years of operation at the Minnesota State Fair this year.

Earlier versions, Pittroff says, were a bit more dangerous.

"We had trouble hurting people,” he recalls of one particular iteration that had lanes separated by steel ridges. “Kids would hit their ankles on the lane dividers and break them.”

That's ankles breaking. Not lane dividers.

Pittroff began working at fairs in California in 1953, on the food side of the business. In the early 60s, he met a guy who ran an amusement park.

“He said he had this slide that was really popular there. So, the next weekend I got in the airplane and went up to Santa Cruz, and there was a slide there about 20-foot high,” Pittroff remembers. “I took pictures of it and copied it. Came back — my father-in-law in the scaffolding business — he had a fabricator and we built a slide 40 foot high.”

The steep slope and bumps on the way down that first slide flung riders into the air, making for some very rough landings.

Riders reach the end of the giant slide.
Riders throw their arms in the air as they near the end of the Giant Slide at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights on Sept. 1, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2016 file

Pittroff eventually came up with a design that incorporated a new corrugated steel material with grooves, rather than ridges. And the Giant Slide was born. But in orange.

That wasn't quite right, either.

"Too hot. Yellow is cooler than white really. It's hard to believe,” Pittroff says of his creation. “It’s more of a neutral color for sun, for some reason. I don't know why."

The slides were a hit and Pittroff built more than 40 of them around the country, including one at the Wisconsin State Fair. And in 1969, Pittroff and a bunch of kids from the neighborhood around the Minnesota State Fair put up the slide's current incarnation.

The Giant Slide on the final night of the state fair in 2011
A look at the Giant Slide from a Skyride gondola on the final night of the Minnesota State Fair in 2011.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

It's not just an attraction, but a ritual. About 200,000 people a year plunk down $2.50 a pop to sit on a gunny sack and zoom down the 175-foot slope.

Pittroff's daughter, Stacey Pittroff-Barona, runs it now -- with the help of her daughters -- a multi-generational reflection of the institution.

“People have made it a tradition,” she says. ”It’s something that they remember when they were a kid, and now they want to experience that with their kids, or their grandkids.”

She herself has added to the lore. Pittroff-Barona started as a kid selling bird whistles out of a bucket, perched on a crate near the entrance of one of her dad's slides. She's since taken over the day to day operation in Falcon Heights, as well as the decor, like the flowers and fences. Her husband, Robert, actually worked for the family that runs Al's Sub's right next to the giant slide.

And they married ON the slide, for the opening day of the fair in 1996.

Pittroff-Barona says the slide has proven to be a more endearing experience than anyone could have imagined in 1969.

Riders push off the Giant Slide.
Giant Slide assistants help riders mount their mats before cruising down at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I would say it’s one of most social media things on the fair, is the slide. Because everyone's got their cell phones out, they're Twittering it, they're Facebooking it, they're Instagramming photos from the slide,” she says.

Her family will be marking the occasion this year with physical mementos, since souvenirs are a staple of the Minnesota State Fair.

Izzy Barona is Fred Pittroff's granddaughter and the third generation to run the slide.

“People are always asking us, oh, can we buy your shirts? Well, no, but this year we will have special limited edition T-shirts and hats, and only this year, so get them while you can,” she said.

The family is officially kicking off its 50th year with an opening ceremony at 11 a.m. Thursday. And even Mancini's food concession around the corner will have Giant Slide themed spumoni. With green and yellow ice cream — the eye popping colors of the actual slide.

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