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Artifact to Play Symbolic Role in Minn. State Fair

A fortuitous discovery will play a significant and symbolic part in the reconstruction of the fair's original Heritage Square exhibit.

Sat July 19, 2014 - Midwest Edition
Dick Rohland

With the temperature finally reaching the freezing point in mid-March, this Kubota backhoe was put to good use to breakup and remove a frozen, compacted pile of snow that grew in size over the long winter.
With the temperature finally reaching the freezing point in mid-March, this Kubota backhoe was put to good use to breakup and remove a frozen, compacted pile of snow that grew in size over the long winter.
With the temperature finally reaching the freezing point in mid-March, this Kubota backhoe was put to good use to breakup and remove a frozen, compacted pile of snow that grew in size over the long winter. A Cat backhoe excavates the 8 ft. (2.5 m) embankment to bring the new exhibit down to street level while two Cat dump trucks will take the fill over to the Grandstand to build up a 20 ft. (6 m) berm behind the stage. A Cat 3120 backhoe excavates in thawing ground with the historic coach from the Royal America train perched above on 10 ft. (3.1 m) berm. By late March and early April, buildings begin to take shape. Workers on a Lull JLG lift place siding on the restroom facilities while concrete is pumped for a section of the 150,000 sq. ft. pavilion. Two Bobcats work together with construction activity heating up in early June. Crews are working 11 hour days, six days a week to make up for time lost from the harsh winter to have the West End Market exhibit ready for the August 21st opening of the Minn A Cat loader dumps fill with the restored arch looming above in the background. Outfitted with GPS equipment, a Cat dozer spreads fill on the work site. The operator for this Bobcat working near the restored arch expressed appreciation for
helping build a unique 
project that helps 
celebrate the history 
of the state and 
the Minnesota 
State Fair. Workers on a Lull JLG lift and a Genie boom place roofing material on one of the two restaurants that will have a place in the West End Market exhibit for the Minnesota State Fair. By mid-June, the work site boomed with activity as workers continued exterior and interior work on one of the restaurants on the left and the new museum on the right. A Lull JLG lift transports material between the two buildings.

A fortuitous discovery of an artifact from past Minnesota State fairs will play a significant and symbolic part in the reconstruction of the fair’s original Heritage Square exhibit and in the construction of a new transit hub.

While roaming a heavily wooded area on the far reaches of state fair property, a mosquito control worker stumbled across a galvanized steel arch estimated to weigh 1 ton (.9 t). Partially hidden by thick undergrowth, the arch for nearly 50 years, served as a gateway into the fairgrounds at the old, Como Avenue streetcar entrance.

The arch was removed in 1980 to make room for a new exhibit and indefinitely stored in this remote, wooded area of the fairgrounds until its discovery. With construction to start the following year, State Fair officials promptly decided to bring it back as part of the new gate into the fairgrounds at the Transit Hub.

McGough Construction took on the $15 million project. McGough Construction has its roots in mid-19th century Ireland. It is now in its sixth generation of family ownership and has offices in Minnesota, Iowa and Arizona.

The timing of the discovery could not have worked out better, said Jerry Hammer, Minnesota State Fair general manager.

Given the long standing former function of the arch on state fairgrounds, its resurrection and location at an exhibit that looks back at the state’s pioneer heritage and the fair’s history, and in an area that once housed race horses decades ago, the timing of the discovery was impeccable.

In Hammer’s words, "the arch is making a return. And it is appropriate in about ten different ways. It’s really cool the way it worked out," Hammer said.

At the time of the discovery, fair officials were putting together the final plans for the project.

According to Hammer, the arch first loomed overhead state fair visitors in 1933. He estimated it welcomed into the fair 17 million people during its original 47 years as a gate.

Though fair officials knew the arch still existed, it was not on their immediate radar when planning first began.

It was similar to "something being put in the attic and as the years go by it gets pushed further to the back and then you’re reminded its there," said Hammer.

Meanwhile, the Young America Center, an attraction targeting the fair’s teen visitors was erected in 1964. Sitting on the west side of the Grandstand, the area was formerly a stabling area for race horses.

Originally built to last for 10 years, the teen center took on a second life when fair officials converted it to Heritage Square in 1975 to celebrate the upcoming United States Bicentennial in 1976.

As Heritage Square, it commemorated an early America theme and the fair’s and state’s history. Along with food booths and artisans, it featured a State Fair history museum, an orignal 1880’s log cabin with a windmill, an old railroad caboose, a train depot, an entertainment stage and an original coach from the train that carried carnies with the old Royal American Show to fairs around the country.

And now, "here we are, 50 years later, using the same facility and we’ve known for a long time that it needed to be replaced," said Hammer.

Combining the design and construction of both projects under one kills two birds with one stone for state fair officials and visitors.

In the planning for the last 20 years, fair officials knew that Heritage Square needed a major remake. They also knew that busses arriving and leaving Como Avenue competed for lane space with a highly congested city arterial street during the fair’s 12 day run.

"We knew that we needed to improve the bus commuting. It’s real tough with all the traffic on Como Avenue and then moving the hundreds of daily busses to the parking lot and then bringing the people back across the street," to the gate, Hammer said.

However, both projects were put on the back burner because of other construction priorities, which are entirely funded from state fair funds, Hammer said.

When the project is completed, State Fair commuter busses will by-pass congested traffic around the fair by driving into state fairgrounds directly from a nearby bus transit way that connects the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses of the University of Minnesota.

At the same time, the Transit Hub will help revitalize an exhibit somewhat hidden in an area of the fairgrounds that does not see regular foot traffic.

Located on a far corner of the 320 acre state fair grounds and tucked between the Grandstand, the fair’s outdoor 13,000 seat entertainment venue and the rides and games of the Midway grounds; Heritage Square was off the beaten path of the fairgrounds.

The new gateway and transit hub will change all that. Gracefully arching overhead, the new gateway will bring approximately 700,000 fair enthusiasts, or a little over one third of the state fair’s annual 1.8 million people into the fairgrounds through the remodeled exhibit, Hammer said.

Along with the historic buildings, train coach, caboose, restroom and new museum, the exhibit will feature two restaurants, amphitheater and six pavilion displays.

Despite a late start and losing 26 days to the snow and cold of the past winter and an already tight construction schedule, McGough crews and its sub-contractors will have the new exhibit ready for the 2014 opening of the Minnesota State Fair in late August, said Patrick Steinberger, McGough construction superintendent.

Time is at a premium on this project which included the demolition of the old exhibit, an 8 ft. (2.5 m) cut of 150,000 cu. yd. (114,750 cu m) of dirt and moving the old train coach, caboose, log cabin, windmill and depot to temporary storage.

"We started later then we would have liked so we lost about six weeks right out of the chute so it just gets right down to the schedule. We have to be very schedule orientated. If we miss a day, it just messes everything up," Steinberger said.

Steinberger credits the patience and cooperation of his sub-contractors and state fair staff in keeping the project moving forward while working around the weather delays.

"Even with the cold weather, we’ve had fantastic cooperation with all the sub-contractors we’re working with. The fairgrounds staff has been a pleasure to work with. They just kind of kicked it (weather related delays) off to the side," Steinberger said.

Supporting the daily tradesmen on site, there was a good representation of Cat dozers, backhoes and trucks on hand, several Bobcat tractors, JLG lifts, Kubota backhoes and a Ford Sterling 40 ton (36 t) truck crane .

Last fall, after the demolition of the site and the historic exhibits had been moved, excavating crews with Bolander and Sons out of St. Paul, Minnesota began digging out the huge cut. Operating Cat backhoes, dozers and trucks, crews dug and moved the excavated material to the infield of the Grandstand which sits directly adjacent and east of the construction site.

The cut was necessary to lower the exhibit to street level and bring it closer to grade to the sprawling Midway area on its south side. A new entrance between the reconstructed exhibit and the Midway will be constructed to create a more natural flow between the two attractions and the rest of the fair, Steinberger explained.

Cat dozers and trucks moved much of the removed material over to the Grandstand directly adjacent to the construction site to build a 20 ft. (6 m) berm behind the stage area. The berm will be planted with trees and shrubs as an aesthetic back drop for the stage.

With the 8 ft. (2.5 m) embankment now removed, Bolander crews began underground utility work. Excavating crews installed thousands of feet of electrical wiring for power, storm and sanitary sewer, potable water and fire sprinkler lines for the new buildings.

"So, you can imagine the spider web we have out here underground," Steinberger remarked. "Fighting the snow and bitter cold through much of the winter, crews completed roughly 80 percent or three months of underground work this winter knowing that we were not going to have time this spring to do it."

"It’s a very windy site. So, we were flirting with a wind chill factor just about every day this winter," Steinberger said.

At times, the arctic temperatures stopped work. And if it wasn’t the cold, it was the snow that caused delays.

"We would ground thaw, dig and save the material and try to backfill right away," Steinberger said. However, "during snow falls, we could not backfill with moisture saturated fill."

"Knowing we were going to be very busy this spring, we tried to get as much work done as possible over the winter. We were pushing dirt. We broke frost and then dig it. We were working dark to dark," Steinberger said.

Along with the underground utility work, during the winter months all the foundation walls and piers were in the ground, the restroom was built and all the historic displays moved into place, Steinberger noted.

Using the cold and deep frost to their advantage, crews with Semple Companies, a 70 year old company based out of St. Paul hit the site. Specializing in moving large structures, Semple crews pulled over solid ground the train coach, caboose, depot, log cabin and windmill to their new locations inside the exhibit.

Moving the coach alone to its spot in the exhibit and setting it in place was a project in itself. Burning up three days, Semple crews first placed the wheels on a set of tracks mounted to approximately a 100 ft. (31 m) strip of concrete on top of a 10 ft. (3.1 m) berm built for the display.

Operating a Jahns jacking system, Semple crews rolled the 130,000 lb. (58,500 kg) coach alongside the berm on dollies, jacked it up, put roller beams in, rolled it over the top of the tracks and set it back down again, said Terry Semple, owner of Semple movers.

Semple crews worked "hand in hand" with Bolander crews in that "miserable, cold winter" to move the coach, caboose, train depot and log cabin back into the new exhibit, Semple said.

Added Steinberger, "I had no idea the coach weighed that much. That surprised me."

By mid-June, a blend of the old mixed in with the new. The steel framework of a new building framed the old log cabin and windmill. Heavy equipment roamed back and forth with the historic arch and Royal American coach looming above.

And dozens of tradesmen swarmed the construction site and worked non-stop to install the internal building utilities while concrete was still being poured for the 150,000 sq. ft. (13,950 sq m) of flatwork and landscaping crews began planting trees and shrubbery.

Though time is very tight on this project, its location on state fairgrounds is quiet and free of daily traffic which helped accelerate the work schedule during the winter months, Steinberger said.

However, "now we’re beginning to struggle a bit to schedule around the summer events booked at the fair. So, that’s part of what we’re doing right now; trying to tie in our schedule to the fair’s schedule," Steinberger said.

Working 11 hour days, six days a week, McGough crews have two critical deadlines to meet. Turning over the 5,000 sq. ft. (465 sq m) history museum to fair officials by July 20th and turning over the two restaurants to their owners by August 1, Steinberger said.

With the cooperation and good relationships between all the contractors, Steinberger is confident both deadlines will be met.

The historic arch, which generated a lot of local media coverage by its discovery, has for some time now loomed above this busy work site. Though physically a very small part of the project, from off the record comments picked up from the daily workers on the job site, it has generated a humble sense of pride and accomplishment on this project.

Remaining work on the project includes the on-going interior work of the buildings, completing the concrete work for pavilion areas, siding installation and landscaping before opening it for the first day of the Minnesota State Fair in late August.

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