11 - Mighty Midway
Click Image for a Larger VersionMidway Then and Now Text
Midway then and now
“The entertainment center, the “Great White Way”, the Coney Island of the 10 day city – the Midway and the Royal American shows. For many, this is the state fair where it begins and where it ends….”
The Midway - a place where opportunists could try anything at least once. If it didn’t work, there was always a zanier idea cued up. Decades ago the Midway featured risqué dance revues and side shows. In the recent past, winning a Spongebob Squarepants at the ring toss was all the rage.
Hard to believe, but our own Midway was once a shallow lake. The idea was for fairgoers to take leisurely boat rides along dredged-out canals, stopping periodically to picnic and camp. There was even talk of developing a zoo and wildlife exhibit on one end of the canals. Why didn’t these visions come to pass? The lakebed kept drying up. So, the lakebed was filled in to make way for other attractions.
Then came the rides….and more rides, and more rides....
“Back in the early 60s, when I was just a kid, my Dad would drop me and my sisters off at the fair in the morning before work and pick us up on his way home. We each had $5.00…the only thing I really wanted to do was to go on the Midway. My sister knew we would spend all our money there so she made up this rule that we could not go on the Midway until noon. Those were a long 5 hours!”
Today the Midway covers roughly 8 acres of the fairgrounds. No matter what has happened on the Midway over the years, there’s always been a common thread – pure fun for the young and the young at heart.
Rides on the Midway
“My favorite memory of the Minnesota State Fair is the big carousel that was on the corner of Underwood and Commonwealth. ‘The World’s Largest Merry-Go-Round’ said the sign. That ride was the best part of the fair for me. I remember riding it when my toddler legs barely hung down the sides of the horse. Each year I’d see how much closer my feet came to the stirrups.”
More than a hundred years ago, the carousel was the main attraction at fairs across the country. But it was the introduction of the Ferris wheel, first seen at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, that drew crowds to Midways everywhere. Wildly successful, more rides were added. And, when the nation’s first Ferris wheel with 4 integrated wheels was unveiled at the Minnesota State Fair in 1932, it was clear that for carnival providers the quest was on for bigger, longer, and more hair-raising rides.
“I can remember Royal American Shows that came here in 1933 with the owner Carl Sedlmayr They would come in by rail or train with a wagon master named Eddie Lester and he used to tell us about the changes in the Midway and his job. He kept track of the rides, power plants and generators powered by a pony motor to start them. We camped out by the railroad tracks and watched them unload the 90-car train.”
Of the many carnival companies that provided rides on the Midway over the years, the most famous was Royal American Shows. Royal American worked with the Minnesota State Fair for more than 60 years. Each year they showed up with something new -The Whip, Ridee-O, Hey Day, Octopus, or the Matterhorn.
Whether fairgoers were drawn to stomach-churning adventures or the simplicity of riding on the beautifully carved carousel horses, the Mighty Midway was and is a guaranteed memory maker.
Sideshows on the Midway
“My dad didn’t let me go and do this, but he went with some friends to see the Gorilla Girl, and I remember him coming back and talking about it, how he could see the mirrors in the back, and just sort of how cheesy it was. But you know, in my 10-year-old mind, I was just thinking: Wow! This woman turns into a gorilla!”
The Midway today is a great place to go for good, clean fun. But it wasn’t always that way. In the eyes of some people, it teetered on the edge of a moral abyss.
Early on, the Midway offered Bingo, a game second only to sinful blackjack. It was a place to see a sword swallower and a place where female dancers showed just a bit too much skin.
The side show, sometimes referred to as the “ten-in-one,” could be a sordid place where people with deformities were offered up as curiosities. Even men from exotic places like Borneo were presented on the Midway as an object of ethnographic study. Sad but true—if you could sell it as educational, your sideshow was a go.
As a rebuke to these questionable sideshows, a 1947 newspaper editorial argued that no one was interested in the Midway and that the fair needed to “grow up.” Yet ticket sales that same year showed that for every dollar spent at the main gates, 77 cents was spent on the Midway. Even if sideshows were money makers, human oddities, as they sometimes were called, were phased out in the early 1970s. Illusionist and some single-act side shows seem to be some of the few remaining side shows left today.
But, with or without the sideshows of the past, today’s Midway is still a major draw, filled with fun and sometimes even a trick of the eye. Times have changed, but the Midway mystique lives on.
Design a Ride
If you could design a ride for the fair today, what would it do and what would it look like?