The Minnesota State Fair had plenty to eat during its earliest years — just not for humans. While the livestock stayed fed, people were something of an afterthought.
That changed in 1897 when a group of women from Hamline Methodist Episcopal Church decided fairgoers would enjoy sandwiches and cold drinks — something they could make and serve while representing their church at the fair and fundraising.
Food became central to the fair experience, and the Hamline Church Dining Hall became a staple of fair life, a tradition that 125 years later continues to thrive amid the fried ice cream, falafel on a stick, pronto pups, turkey legs and other creative eats that dominate fair life now.
It’s one of the last two church halls at the State Fair and it fills up the second it opens at 7 a.m. The hall has modernized through the years but basics like the classic ham loaf and wild rice meatballs remain in high demand. The women of the Ladies Aid Society might still recognize the place.
“I wonder what they’re thinking about now, you know? Did they think their dream was going to happen and we would still be here?” said Teresa Renneke, a committee member and 40-year volunteer at the hall.
The hall, she said, offers an oasis in the constant throng of people moving while eating at the fair. “You can come inside and have dishware and silverware and actually sit down, it’s really just the atmosphere,” she said. “We always try to evolve.”
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Many people, she added, begin their day at the church hall. Being right near the front gates doesn’t hurt.
Jan and Bob King of Savage Minn., come to the fair one day a year, and they always start their day at Hamline.
Bob said he’s been going since he was a kid. Jan started joining him about 20 years ago when they moved back to Minnesota.
“It’s good to start your day with nourishing food like this,” Bob said Wednesday morning at the hall. “You can sit down and get your day started. And they’re just unbelievable, you all but sit down and they come to refill your coffee.”
Beyond the signature dishes, the hall has added a few favorites, including the Hamline egger — an English muffin, ham, eggs and cheese. Thanks to a partnership with Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis, blueberry pancakes instantly became a 2022 State Fair draw.
“It’s been really amazing. They’re a lovely group of people,” said Al’s Breakfast owner Alison Kirwin, who’s been flipping pancakes daily at the church hall. We’re both recognizable Minnesota brands, so it made sense.”
They’d discussed a partnership a few years ago but then came COVID-19. Joining forces now for the hall’s 125th anniversary felt like a “natural step,” Kirwin said.
On the first day of the fair this year, the Hamline Church Dining Hall was named “Grandest Stand of All” for its authentic, time-honored menu. To celebrate their anniversary, they are offering birthday cake flavored paletas, a new State Fair food.
Volunteers on Friday weaved in and out among the tables with napkins or hot coffee. For some, the yearly fair tradition is part of their summer tradition and they can’t imagine it any other way.
That includes Aileene Vanderbilt of Roseville, who has been volunteering for 65 years at the hall. While she says she didn’t want to do the math, she guessed that she began volunteering as a young teenager. There are newbies and regulars at the tables, but she says it’s a first stop for many at the fair.
“I volunteer every single year, we have to be doing something right,” she said. “The food is very good and, hey, I think we’re pretty friendly too.”