OWATONNA — A small, red-and-white stick stand found in the center of the Steele County Fairgrounds has become Kathy Heise’s world.
“He knew,” Heise said. “I’ve gotten electrocuted and worked. I’ve worked with a broken arm and no cast. He was always worried about me, but he knew I’d always be here.”
And although it’s only been a part of her life since the 1980s, the stand, itself, dates back to 1946, when it made its debut at the Steele County Free Fair.
That’s when “he” — Heise’s late husband, Ray — became involved with the Pronto Pup franchise.
“He would help out at fairs,” Heise said.
And in the 1950s, Ray purchased the stick stand and the franchise from the man he helped.
“He loved this,” Kathy said. “When the kids got married or somebody got married, he would say, ‘You have it when the fair’s not on if you want me to be there.’ He totally loved it.”
After Ray’s first wife died from cancer in the early ‘70s, his children worked with him before Heise joined the crew.
“We were together 24 hours a day,” she said. “It was just meant to be. We were meant to be.”
Heise and Ray married in September 1988 and resided in Faribault.
The couple traveled throughout southern Minnesota introducing fairgoers to the Pronto Pup and providing it to its faithful followers.
But in 2001 — after 55 years with Heise Concessions Pronto Pups — Ray died of cancer.
And Heise said she never thought about closing the stand.
“I knew I was going to do it,” she said.
In 2002, Heise returned to the Steele County Free Fair with the help of friends and family, especially her grandsons, Chad and Jason.
“You don’t learn overnight. You have to be the plumber, electrician and carpenter in case something goes wrong,” she said. “When Ray was gone, I learned a lot.”
Heise said that, before Elmer Reseland died in 2012, he had given her the best compliment.
“Elmer always had time to talk,” she said. “When Ray died, [Elmer] told me that I had gained respect with the other concessionaires because many didn’t think I’d come back after that, and he said, ‘You did it, and they respect you for that.’ That has meant a lot, even today.”
And today, Heise continues to return to Owatonna for the fair, as well as the Mower County Fair and the Rice County Fair and other festivals.
With her, Heise brings the history of the Pronto Pup.
“In 1941, Pronto Pup flour invented the first hot dog dipped in batter and deep fried,” she said. “The main ingredient is wheat and rice, and you had to buy a franchise to get that flour.”
But Heise said some people didn’t want to buy the flour because it was expensive.
“That’s where the corn dog came from,” she said. “It came later, which is made from corn meal — sandy, gritty, icky.”
Heise said Pronto Pup batter is “sweeter and better.”
“You can go to all these [corn dog] stands and they could all be different, but you can go from New York to Washington and a Pronto Pup will always be the same,” she said. “It’s like Coke or Pepsi. It’s a guarded recipe.”
And don’t get caught calling the Pronto Pup a corn dog around Heise.
“Oh, it’s not good,” she said. “I’ll tell them the whole story.”
Heise said even her employees face consequences for calling the Pronto Pup a corn dog.
Each time they’re caught saying it, they owe Heise a dollar, and each time after, it’s more.
“This is my whole life,” she said. “I mean, it’s my whole world.”
And Heise said she especially enjoys coming to Steele County each year with the stand.
“Once a year, I see them and probably don’t even know their last names, but they’re your neighbors, and even though we’re competitors, we’re family,” she said. “I love the Steele County Free Fair. I love everything about it.”
Since 2007, Heise has brought the footlong Pronto Pup, the Egg Pup, which is a hard-boiled egg dipped in Pronto Pup batter, the Austin Pup, which is Spam dipped in Pronto Pronto Pup batter, and the Cheese Pup, which is American cheese dipped in Pronto Pup batter.
And, like Ray, Heise said she’s dipped a lot of other things in Pronto Pup batter, including apples, marshmallows, brats and Roma tomatoes.
She said she’s tried to bring the Austin Pup and the Egg Pup to the Minnesota State Fair, but now the timing is wrong.
“That’s every concessionaire’s dream,” Heise said. “But this is my state fair.”
And she said whenever she’s in the stick stand, Ray’s there.
“I’ve got a lot of great memories here,” Heise said. “The best were when Ray was here.
“It’s the perfect place to be. He gives me encouragement.”
Heise said Steele County Free Fairgoers can count on seeing here in the future.
“I’ll do it ‘til I die,” she said. “If I died today, they better keep it open.”