Infrequently Asked Fair Questions: What happens at the Minnesota State Fair overnight?

Rides light up the Midway.
Lights from a swing ride make trails in the night sky in the Midway at the Minnesota State Fair, in this long-exposure photograph from the 2016 fair.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

For this year’s Minnesota State Fair, MPR’s All Things Considered will be featuring a series called “Infrequently Asked Questions.” MPR News reporters will try to answer fair questions you didn't know you had.

As many as a quarter-million people a day show up at the Minnesota State Fair during its annual run. But just as surely as they scarf buckets of cookies and down truckloads of craft beer — they leave. By midnight most nights, fairgoers are back home and the grounds are mostly empty.

Mostly.

It takes a lot of work to keep the fair going from day to day, and a huge amount of that happens overnight.

MPR’s Tim Nelson has covered the fair for decades and walked its streets a few times before 4 a.m.

Tim joined MPR News host Tom Crann from the fairgrounds.

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So Tim, what does happen overnight at the fair?

It has actually changed over the years: When the fair was smaller, with fewer days and fewer people, there were some deliveries to vendors during the day. But the crowds have made that impossible. It’s just not safe to have trucks driving around anymore, so all of that has to happen at night. All the food, all the beverages, all the propane gets hauled in overnight and restocked for the next day.

So basically, if someone can’t pull it in on a wagon or cart, it comes in overnight to be ready when the gates open at 7 a.m. Most of it comes in at gate 14 on Canfield Street, on the southwest corner of the fairgrounds. Everything else gets buttoned up overnight, but that is the main 24-hour access.

Jeffrey Martinez works the night shift cleaning.
Jeffrey Martinez works the night shift cleaning the floors of the Food Building at the State Fair in Aug.
Max Nesterak | MPR News 2016

There’s got to be a big cleaning crew as well. The grounds always seem to be spruced up and sparkling when the gates open in the morning.

It’s a huge task. I talked to Sean Casey, head of operations for the fair.

“The goal is to make the grounds look just like it did opening morning,” he said.

That starts with a crew of people with backpack blowers marching across the fairgrounds. They pick up all the litter and blow all the debris off the sidewalks and boulevards onto the streets. And then a street sweeper goes over every foot of every street, every night.

Same goes for all the bathrooms: there are 10 standalone bathrooms on the grounds, plus restrooms in many buildings, like the Grandstand and the Agriculture Horticulture building. They have to be cleaned, restocked with toilet paper and hand soap, every night. The fair goes through so much of it, they have to store it in sheds off the fairgrounds.

And then some of the bathrooms, well … need to be put back together. Sean Casey says repairs are pretty proportional to the amount of beer that gets drunk.

“The doors get beat up or ripped off or whatever might be,” he said. “Or — you know, we had a circumstance where a scooter was going into the accessible stall and took a toilet out in the women's room. So the plumbers' overnight guy, his job is to go through all the restrooms, make sure there's no clogs, nothing overflowing, check the sinks, make sure they're all working correctly and again — kind of the same thing — we want it to look presentable every morning, as if it was opening day.”

Part of the reason for the after-hours work is, well, gender imbalance. There just aren’t as many women carpenters and plumbers who can work in single-gender bathrooms, so they get worked on at night.

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.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2011

And there are other complications as well: There’s a rule here that all daytime repairs have to be done at ground level. They won’t bring in ladders or lifts or scaffolding at all when people are here, so if light bulbs need to be replaced or banners need to be fixed, that equipment is only allowed at night.

And that goes for vendors as well: if the cooler conks out in your food stand, or you get a hydraulic leak on your ride, and a technician can’t carry the part in to fix it, or do the repair by hand, it will have to wait until the grounds are closed to the public.

And what about the animals? Are they at the fair overnight? Is someone watching them?

There are animals here overnight in the various livestock buildings. And there are also people living here — in the 4H dorms, and at about 250 camping spots here.

And there’s actually quite a bit of security on hand. A lot of the booths have guards overnight to watch over their inventory. And of course there have been some overnight shenanigans on the fairgrounds.

Oh, do tell.

I’ve been covering the fair on and off for 30 years now, and back in the day, I was the public safety reporter for the Pioneer Press. And I used to have scanners running, 24 hours a day. And decades ago, the fair traffic would often pick up late at night — you'd hear people start reporting runaway bulls on the grounds.

But it was fake. It was a prank that the old hands would pull on the new people, telling them to go try and corral a cow by the Grandstand, and then sighting it down on the Midway and sending someone chasing down there to look for it.

I haven’t heard that for a long time, but it seemed to be an annual ritual for a while.

So, the gates may be closed after the fireworks end, but there’s still a lot going on each night at the fairgrounds.