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The captain knocked on his camper door early, before 5 a.m., so Steve Roberts was in a bit of a rush to put on his uniform and his white cowboy hat and begin another season with the Minnesota State Fair Mounted Patrol.

“This is my 50th year,” said Roberts, 75. “Maybe I’ll have a few more good ones.”

Back in 1969, when Roberts joined the fair’s civilian patrol, his primary duty was to ride the perimeters to stop scofflaws from jumping the fence. He and his steady palomino, Tera, the first of five horses to work with him at the fair, would also patrol the parking lots at night, stepping in to help people find their way back to their cars.

Now, Roberts and the 15 other patrol members, clad in white shirts with a brown and yellow patch on the shoulder, manage the “changeover” operations in the livestock barns, helping park 30-foot trailers as farmers bring out cows or pigs that have already been shown, and bring in new animals.

They also help with crowd control, parting the sea of people so vehicles and animals can come through, and bring kids to the lost-and-found area, lead the fair’s daily 2 p.m. parade, and say yes to child after child who wants to pet their horses.

“It becomes a petting zoo out here,” Roberts said. “Kids get a thrill. You can’t say no. You’ve got to let them pet the horse. And these horses, they like to be petted,” he said, referring to Hickory, the 14-year-old bay quarter horse he rides now.

“Yeah, go ahead,” he said to a fair fan. “Pet him on the leg. Touch him right here in front, son.”

Roberts, who lives in Stacy, Minn., has been retired for years. But back when he worked at the Unisys computer manufacturing plant in Roseville, he would put in for vacation the last two weeks of summer every year, and spend it working at the fair.

“It’s a lot of time to spend with your horse,” he said. “During the year, you don’t get to spend that time with them. After a while, they’re like part of you.”

Thirty-five years ago, Roberts’ wife, Diane, joined up, as well. Now, the two of them park their Cherokee camper behind the swine barn every year, along with the other patrol members. They all bring their own horses (a steady, unflappable steed is a requirement for the job) and make what their captain called a “modest” hourly wage, putting in 13-hour days during the fair’s run.

“This is our home away from home for 14 days,” Roberts said.

A family affair

After 10 p.m. each day, the patrol members head back to their campers, get their horses settled in their temporary stable nearby, and sit around together, telling stories.

They recount tales of a rider struggling to control his startled horse when a concessionaire accidentally tossed a giant stuffed teddy bear right at them, of catching bits of the grandstand’s headliner, if the wind blows the right way. And they remember the old days, when they had to work until 2 a.m., surprising fence-jumpers, dodging falling fireworks shells on horseback and helping lost fairgoers piece together enough information to get them back to their cars.

“What gate did you come in? What time? What’s the first thing you saw when you came out of your car?” Diane Roberts recalled asking.

According to Patty Stadt, her dad, Darrell Iliff, was one of the first to join the original four-member patrol in 1947. That’s when fair supervisor Norris Carnes headed to the St. Paul stockyards to find some cowboys to ride the fair’s perimeter and keep fence-jumpers out.

Iliff stayed in the patrol for 59 years, becoming the group’s captain and reporting to the fair’s Public Safety Department. He never missed a fair until 2007, the year he died at age 80. Now his daughter, her husband and sometimes even their two sons carry on the tradition.

“It’s kind of a family thing. It’s in the blood,” said Stadt, who was the first woman to suit up in the patrol’s cowboy hat and uniform and is wearing it for the 40th time this year.

Before she brings a new horse to the fair, she puts it through a series of tests to make sure the crowds and distractions won’t spook it. She opens up an umbrella nearby, tosses a rain slicker their way and puts down a piece of carpet for them to step on.

“It’s hard to know what they’re going to shy away from,” she said. “And they’ve got to love kids.”

Stadt isn’t the only second-generation patrol member. The group’s current captain, Emmett Cassidy, also grew up watching his dad chase down fair scofflaws. The group’s numbers once swelled to more than 30, Cassidy said, but in those days they used to focus on catching anyone up to no good.

Keeping the tradition

Much has changed over the past 50 years, Roberts said. The fair’s a lot busier, with permanent buildings instead of tents, and is quite a bit harder for folks to sneak into.

“We used to have horses lined up all along Como, all along Snelling,” he said. “Right in front of you, they’d try to get over the fence.”

About 10 years ago, the unit started working for the fair’s Agriculture Department, instead of Public Safety.

The patrol also sets up camp differently. They used to stay in pickup truck campers and keep their horses in the fair’s old racetrack barn, getting a kick out of their plucky quarter horses sleeping in the place where the fair’s most famous horse, undefeated American Standardbred harness racer Dan Patch, once stayed.

Horse racing at the fair ended in 1949, but the old barn stood near the grandstand’s west end until a storm damaged it in 2007, causing the fair to demolish it.

Some things, though, have stayed the same.

As far back as folks can remember, patrol members have carried the Minnesota state flag and the U.S. flag in the fair’s parades. For the past few years, Roberts has been at the front.

On the fair’s first day this year, he led the way with another patrol member. Behind them trailed a police car, Ronald McDonald in a white pickup truck, a marching band from the city of Rosemount and, of course, Princess Kay and her court.

There was only one year in the past 50 that Roberts was tempted to skip the fair, his wife said. He also rides as a historical re-enactor in a 7th U.S. Cavalry troop, and had an opportunity to be an extra in a movie. He decided to keep tradition and return to the fairgrounds.

“We must like it,” said Diane Roberts. “Or we wouldn’t be back.”

Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726