Chippewa Herald * October 1, 2005

Tom Thumb Donuts are the sweet spot of Minnesota State Fair

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

I love autumn. In our family, the ritual of going back to school intertwines with our annual tradition of attending the Minnesota State Fair.

It helps that I grew up near the fair. In fact, living only two miles away from the fairgrounds, my brother Jim and I would often walk to the fair and spend the day, even when we were only 9 and 11 years old.

Back then, kids under 16 got in free on Fridays, so we were able to stretch out our lawn-mowing and allowance money to last from early morning until late at night. The only thing I remember spending my money on were Pronto Pups, a few games of pinball or skeeball, and of course Tom Thumb Donuts.

Donuts were the main culinary attraction of the fair for Jim and me. The future engineers in us were fascinated by watching the process: hearing the machine punching out the dough, seeing it automatically flipping the donuts over on their circuitous route, smelling the sizzling oil, and watching them get rolled in sugar after they slide down the chute.

I have a vivid memory of one year -- I think I was 12 -- when I bought SEVEN BAGS of Tom Thumb Donuts for my personal consumption. Mind you, that was spread over about 14 hours. Still, seven bags in one day stands as my personal record, which is now held in high regard by my own kids.

Not all mini-donuts are created equal. Even as a child, I knew there was something special about Tom Thumb Donuts, apart from the name I shared with them. Some day maybe I'd learn more.

Fast forward a few years. It was tough to get to the fair when we lived in Colorado and Oregon. Sure, I scheduled some business trips and vacations for the end of August, but we did have several fairless seasons.

When we moved to Chippewa Falls in 1991, though, we were once again within striking range, and we haven't missed a year since. It's even more fun now with our own kids.

Through 2003, we would take the kids in the morning, then send them home with grandparents in the afternoon while Beth and I enjoyed the rest of the day by ourselves.

Last year was a breakthrough for us -- for the first time, the kids stayed with us the entire day. (It helps that we no longer need diapers and a stroller!) We were on the fairgrounds from 7:15 a.m. until 10:15 p.m. Not bad -- 15 hours with a group of seven. And believe me, that's only enough time to see about half what we wanted (see photos).

If it weren't for my sensible wife, we'd go for two or three days -- or better yet we'd snap up one of the camping spots right in the fairgrounds and stay there for the entire WEEK!

Anyway, back to those donuts. For several years, I have had a framed Tom Thumb Donut bag hanging in my kitchen. Don't ask me why -- it just looks cool and brings back memories.

That kitchen decoration ended up giving me a ticket to Tom Thumb heaven. Let me explain. Last year, my brother Paul brought his Jugheads Youth Juggling Company to perform in this area, and we hosted them at our house afterward.

One of the juggling kids who was at our house was Kelvin Ying. (No, he was not named after the temperature scale; I asked his parents.) To make a long story short, Kelvin found out that his piano teacher's husband, Ted Boecher, grew up next to the owner of Tom Thumb Donuts, and was now the manager of the stand.

When Ted found out from Kelvin about my framed bag, he knew I was a true fan. He invited our whole family for a guided tour through the entire operation! We got free donuts and were even promised a shirt and hat with the logo.

(See, it pays to honor your heritage. It also pays to find out where your brother's juggling student's piano teacher's husband works.)

We got to hear the history of Tom Thumb Donuts, which have been a pillar of the fair since the 1950s. It all started in 1947, when the Ryan Aeronautical Company in California suddenly had a whole department of design engineers idle after the war. Ryan decided to keep them busy by putting them to work inventing a donut machine.

A few hundred patents later, the machine was a big success and was destined to enrich the lives of kids everywhere, at the rate of 90 donuts per minute per machine.

It was the late John Desmond and his wife Janet who brought Tom Thumb Donuts to the Minnesota State Fair in 1952. Two boys in John's Minneapolis neighborhood, Boecher and John Hanson, grew up working at the stand and took it over after Desmond's death. A few years later, Hanson died of a heart attack right in the main Tom Thumb booth next to Ye Olde Mill, surrounded by donuts. What a way to go!

Every year we try some new food at the fair. This year, it was Cajun Catfish On A Stick; the kids are already lobbying for a Deep-Fried Snickers Bar On A Stick next year.

But year in and year out, no matter what is new, we always get a few bags of good old Tom Thumb Donuts.

Some things just can't be improved.


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