Rain or shine, Waseca County was ready to come together and again to celebrate its biggest event of the year: the Waseca County Free Fair.
"It looked like people wanted to get out and about," Tucker Roeker, Waseca County Fair Board director-at-large said Monday, describing the atmosphere in the area before the fair started. He added that the fair board was told that other regional fairs and festivals in the weeks leading up to Waseca's fair had been very well attended, so the board was preparing for high attendance levels, which he believes was achieved.
"Overall, I think it went very well," Roeker said.
The 2020 Waseca County Free Fair was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though the fair began Wednesday under cloudy skies and light rain, with umbrellas and raincoats dotting the main strip as fairgoers purchased concessions and traveled between events in buildings, much of the severe weather predicted missed the fairgrounds. The following days provided for an iconic summer experience, allowing fairgoers to purchase the famous Waseca Fire Department onion rings, endure paintball matches and enjoy free entertainment sprinkled throughout the fairgrounds all week long.
"I think they're excited to have the fair back in town — a little normalcy after a year and a half," Roeker added.
The fair’s opening ceremony began at 4:30 p.m. as planned, though rain at that time forced the veterans giving the 21-gun salute to be stationed indoors on the perimeter of a building with a large opening, out of which they fired. Visitors faced the backs of the American Legion and VFW honor guard who participated in the ceremony.
Deb Wantoch-Yess, a recently retired music teacher who taught at Waseca High School for 38 years, sang the national anthem.
Respect for the vets was the reason Bessie Paulson and Carol Born of Waseca, two women with the VFW, gave for attending the fair’s opening ceremony every year.
“Because they gave a lot of themselves, so we can be here to support them,” Born said.
The Waseca High School Jazz Combo began playing just minutes after the opening ceremony concluded.
For Cory and Kristen Hackett of Waseca, who were in the audience while their son Jordan played drums, the combo is an opportunity for the broader community to see what their young musicians have been working on. Jordan, who is going to be a senior in the fall, they explained, has been playing drums since he was nine years old.
“This is all stuff they play through the school year,” Cory said.
In terms of why they attend the fair every year, though, the Hacketts cited the food, the beer garden and the bands. Cory had already gotten a soft pretzel and cheese curds. Kristen hadn’t gotten anything yet, but was planning to check out the Strawberries ‘N’ Creme stand after the combo finished its set.
Victor Feeley, 17, grew up in Waseca and lives right next to the fairgrounds. A Boy Scout and veteran 4-H’er who has parked cars for the fair, Feeley came to the 4-H building to watch his 8-year-old sister, Isabel Berg, perform in the 4-H Arts-In performance.
“4-H teaches you a lot,” he said. “Gets you ready for future life.”
Building confidence, making friends and organizational skills were just some of the reasons Feeley cited to explain the positive impact 4-H has had on him.
About the fair, which he attends every year, Feeley said he likes the atmosphere, and enjoys getting to meet new people.
“It’s a good family experience,” he said.
Jason Friesen, who runs the Waseca branch of the National Taekwondo Institute, sat underneath a large canvas roof in his red NTI uniform. In front of him were two cinder blocks, a thin plastic board balanced between them and a crowd of children clamoring for a turn to try breaking it.
Friesen has been advertising at the fair this way for six or seven years.
Anna Benson, who helps out at the lemonade stand her grandparents run at the fair, was one of these children. Though she goes to the fair every year, she said, she’d never done taekwondo before. The highlight for her is the rides.
Nevertheless, when Friesen set the plastic board in front of her, and instructed her how to break it — by placing one hand on the cinderblock and pretending to give someone a very low, hard low-five — her palm came down and the board split in two.
The Fair's main attraction Friday evening got underway with a watermelon precariously placed on a traffic cone in the middle of a mud slick. Moments later as engines erupted with a full-throated throttle and the packed stands let out a wail of excitement, the No. 15 car, emblazoned with a seafoam skull and crossbones in the shape of hammers, crashed into the fruit, making the young driver a little richer in the processes.
In the end, Austin DeGrood and his neon orange No. 03 car came out on top in the 19U portion of the derby to kick off an evening full of crashes, cheers and excitement.
James Grundy and Annandale Paintball entertained local youth all weekend long with their inflatable paintball course and family-friendly equipment. Their Low Impact paintball guns were much less powerful than the standard versions that used compressed carbon dioxide as propellant and their paintballs were filled with paint that does not stain clothes.
Waseca Fire Department
Undoubtedly one of the most trafficked stands on the fairgrounds continues to be the Waseca Fire Department with its traditional beer-battered onion rings. Firefighter Eric Cox said the booth has served as one of the main fundraisers for the fire relief association for as long as most people can remember.
"It's part of the fair draw," Cox said. "People expect us to be there and know to come here."
Each day of the fair, the onion rings raise on average more than $10,000 for the association. Cox said the money allows the department to purchase crucial safety equipment that city and affiliated townships cannot always afford due to a strict annual budget.
While the effort is important, Cox said that more than anything running the stand together is fun for the firefighters and their spouses or partners who commonly volunteer to run the stand, too.
"It's not an obligation, but it is a tradition," Cox said. "We're here because the community wants us here and that really adds fuel to our fire as to why we want to be here. We're all about helping and giving to people, even in terms of onion rings."
According to the firefighters, the department cooks on average 800-1,000 pounds of onions during the five days of the fair.
On the midway
The midway is a popular location on the Waseca County Fairgrounds for a number of reasons. Between the traditional carnival games to the exhilarating rides, there is something for everyone to be found inside the midway.
One of the reasons the midway is such a fun place to be, however, is because of the fairgoers themselves. According to Spider, a longtime veteran of carnivals, the Waseca County Free Fair is one of the ideal fairs to attend as a midway worker.
"This is a really good crowd," said Spider, who returned to the fairgrounds for the first time in 20 years to run the Bottle Bust carnival game. "We really like it here and love coming to Minnesota."
Having managed rides for many years, Spider said he enjoys running the games more because of the interaction he can have with the participants. Despite rumors that carnival games are rigged, he promises they are not.
"Every single one of these games can be won," Spider said with a smirk. "Especially mine — this one is easy. You just have to break bottles."