Duluthians prepare for Minnesota State Fair competitions

Residents will vie for ribbons in the wine, pie and embroidery categories.

Minnesota State Fair water tower.
The Minnesota State Fair water tower overlooking the fairgrounds.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — "I'm not submitting as much as I usually do, just because the cost of everything is so high," said Chevon Gallagher, of Duluth, "but I plan on entering a chocolate cake and apple pie, a loaf of bread and blueberry muffins."

Gallagher is among the Northlanders submitting goods to be judged in the State Fair's many competitions.

Marlys Stainbrook, also a Duluthian, is submitting embroidery: specifically, a style called Hardanger, which dates back to ancient Asia but takes its name from a district in Norway where it became widespread in the 18th century. "I always say it keeps me out of the bars," said Stainbrook. "I probably stitch every night."

A shelf of wine bottles tagged with the winemakers' names. Some have ribbons, with a bottle front and center, from Dave Lee, having a blue ribbon.
In 2018, Dave Lee's chokecherry wine won a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.
Contributed / Dave Lee

There are two reasons for Dave Lee, of Duluth, to spend time at the State Fair every year. Not only does Lee submit his homemade wines for competition, he was responsible for spearheading the establishment of the fair's annual Mental Health Awareness Day.

"It's such a great celebration," said Lee, "to really focus on something positive, like our mental health." Elska, a singer-songwriter originally from Duluth, is one of the performers in this year's Mental Health Awareness Day lineup Monday, Aug. 29, at Dan Patch Park.


The giant bird, in protective wrap, made the road trip early Thursday morning. It will be on display in the Eco Experience building to raise awareness of the dangers of lead pollution.

Of course, Lee is also hoping to score some ribbons. He's submitting a variety of wines, including one in the highly competitive chokecherry category.

"There's chokecherries grown throughout Minnesota and chokecherries biochemically are real similar to grapes. They're one of the few fruit wines that actually improve with age," explained Lee. "So there's a lot of entries in for chokecherry wine."

A piece of intricate white embroidery rests on a blue grid.
An example of Marlys Stainbrook's Hardanger embroidery.
Contributed / Marlys Stainbrook

Competitors submit their work in the days leading up to the fair, and on opening day they learn what the judges decided. Lee and Gallagher said they usually look online to see how they did, but Stainbrook likes to find out in person. "That's where we are at 9 o'clock, opening day of the fair," she said.

Gallagher's goal is to win a blue ribbon, something she hasn't yet achieved in a decade of entries. She has, however, won multiple second-place ribbons, including one for chocolate chip cookies. "People said, 'Oh, did you have a special recipe?' I said, no," Gallagher remembered. "The back of the bag of chocolate chips. Everybody was just kind of shocked."

Lee said winemakers get detailed feedback from the judges, and he's sure to take note. "I'll go back and enter it into a spreadsheet so I can keep adjusting my formulas," he said. "Hopefully to improve, to better my chances for the following year."

Stainbrook's won several blue ribbons, but she's still trying for "that big fluffy": a ribbon awarded each year to the best Hardanger overall.

Ultimately, though, she has her eyes on an even bigger prize. "Someday," she said, "I hope there's a bench with my name on it."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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