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What It’s Like to Own a State Fair Ye Old Mill Boat

'It's just perfect to me,' says the new owner of this piece of MN history.

Alex Pears, boat coparent|

Birnstengel’s beautiful boat awaits transport to south Minneapolis

On Tuesday, the Minnesota State Fair memorabilia auction closed, and hundreds of fair aficionados descended upon the fairgrounds to claim their artifacts: old rickshaw carts, vintage farm equipment, yellowing photographs and maps, something called a "Nutting Style Cart."

Among the freezers and fire hoses, the Grandstand lights and ticket-taking podiums, were a few truly iconic items—for example, seven of the red, wooden boats which once sailed friends and lovers through the 109-year-old Ye Old Mill (before they were replaced by plastic models). One of which, we learned recently, went to former MPR reporter Grace Birnstengel.

Brimming with questions, we called Birnstengel up to learn all about owning such a priceless piece of State Fair history. What will she do with the boat? How many smooches would she estimate have been shared in its wooden seats over the years? Was it full of small animal bones when she went to pick it up?

You'll find the answers to all that and more in the conversation below, which has been edited for length and clarity. (Yes, incredibly, it was even longer than the exchange you're about to read.)

First of all, I mean, huge congratulations on your boat.

Thank you so much! Thank you for caring. I'm honestly shocked how much people are hyped on it, because to me... none of my family members care. Well, my sister said congratulations. But they're all fair people and all Minnesotans. I think they probably just don't get it. Anyway.

Tell me about your interest in this specific piece of State Fair history. You could have had a Tilt-A-Whirl cart, you could have had a pinball machine, why the Ye Old Mill boat?

Well, rest assured, I did look through the entire catalogue, which, there were a lot of random things. But I was originally interested in the boat, and then after looking over everything else I remained interested in the boat. My older sister took me on it for the first time, I think when she was in high school and I was in middle school. She would take me to the fair and show me all the cool stuff that I didn't see as a little little kid, because it's really expensive to take a whole family to the fair, so we didn't go that much as a family.

She took me on Ye Old Mill, I don't even remember my first time, but I just loved it. It's so goofy and so old and crusty and weird. It's just perfect to me. The water, they like, dye it blue for some reason? I've taken so many people on it now for their first time, so many of my friends, and it's become a great joy of mine. I try to explain it to them and it just makes no sense. Like, you get in these little boats, and you go in this little tunnel, and it's completely pitch-black dark, and it's pretty quiet, and you pass by these little window displays of leprechauns and gnomes.

This is really—I have also never been on Ye Old Mill, so this is eye opening.


Yeah, last year I thought about going, but there was a pretty long line, and I was just like...

It would have gone fast!

There's always this year.

There is, and it's like, one of the cheaper things to do. I want to say it's still $5 or something. It's quite short, but it's seriously worth it. You will never forget your time on the ride. I don't know if you know anything about it, but it's like the original—it apparently only exists at like, four other state fairs. It's really fuckin' old. Like, over 100 years old.

Left: Picking up the trailer at Reddy Rents. Right: They made it!Alex Pears

It's one of the earliest rides right? I know I've heard people talk about it as like, the original tunnel of love.

Yes, exactly. Basically, you're meant to go on it with a sweetie, and then it's all dark and romantic. It's a makeout ride.

I love that. Nothing screams romance to me like a mill setting.

And the smell of mold, and a bit of fear for your life...

Yeah, when we're saying "pitch black," are we talking, like, cannot see the hand in front of your face?

Cannot see the hand in front of your face. You're like, OK, I was just at the State Fair, surrounded by people and food, and now I'm in this pitch-black tunnel, I can't tell if I'm moving or not. It's incredible.

Do you know, the boat you got, does it float? Is it a useable boat?

Absolutely not. So, I have one of the original boats that hasn't actually been in use for many years now. I remember when they switched them, because they're plastic now, and shiny. So they don't, you know, rot. And I was lit the fuck up about it. I asked the worker, "Oh my god, these are new boats, what happened? What's going on?" And they were just like, "Yeah. The boats got old. We had to get new ones." The ones they're auctioning off are the original ones, so they've been rotting for quite some time now.

Anyway, me and my friend Alex—bless her for helping me haul this insanely heavy, large thing that I don't have the tools or skills to transport—when we picked it up, there were some little animal carcasses in there, like, decayed bones.

I remember scrolling—I too scrolled through all the State Fair stuff in the auction—and I think there were a couple of boats. Did you pick one in particular, or did you just start bidding on one at random and hope for the best?

There were seven, I think, that were up for auction, and they all looked exactly the same to me. For all we know, it could have been the exact same photos for every listing. They should all be identical, I'm sure they're all in various stages of dilapidation. Basically, in the final minutes of these boats being available on this auction website, there's a second-hand countdown, and every time somebody adds a new bid, it adds a tiny bit of time.

One of my friends had asked me what my max would be for one of the boats, because I was planning on bidding on it, so I was like, "I'm just gonna keep bidding till I hit that or get close to it." Some of them sold for a little less, some of them sold for a little more, but it's because in those final seconds... I don't know, I'm not good at explaining how auctions work.

I've never bid on something, personally, not even in the old-school eBay way, so I don't know how that's supposed to work.

Yeah, me either. All that to say, I have no idea if the boat that I got is the specific one they were advertising in the photos. It could very well be a different one, but I love them all the same.

Do you mind if I ask what you ended up paying for it?

Well, I want to ask you if you think it's exorbitant. I don't want everybody to roast me!

Sure, sure.

You know what? Fuck it, it's fine. I'm not afraid. It was $340.

Oh, I don't think that's exorbitant. That's like, roughly a car payment, or something. That's not crazy.

And it's like, never again will I get this opportunity. I had to do it. That ride is really special to me.

It's a priceless thing, in many ways. Sometimes you've gotta spend a little bit to get a one-of-a kind, dilapidated, old, red boat full of animal carcasses.

I knew you would get it. So that's what I spent. A couple people have asked me what I'm going to do with it, which is funny, because I'm imagining in their heads they're just like, "Why?" But to me, it's really obvious, which is it's going to be lawn furniture. It's in my backyard, and I want to get—there's like, caked dirt, layers and layers, so I want to get that off, maybe put a little table in it. It's quite big.

Yeah, I was trying to get a sense from the photos you posted—how big?

It's 10 feet long and about five feet wide. And it's very sturdy. Thankfully, I knew the size of it, so I rented a trailer. But I had no idea how much it weighed. My friend Alex was being awesome and really optimistic that it was going to be light. And it was not. But we did it somehow.

Boat's on the trailer. No one is crushed.Alex Pears

Sometimes it's like, sheer force of will, when you want something bad enough. Like when a mom has to lift a car off of her kid or something.

Yes! There's no other option, I need to take this boat home. Did we almost crush ourselves with it? Absolutely, yes. Did some lady have to run out and help us? Yes! But with three of us... it was still really hard, but we did it.

I want to ask if you would hazard a guess about how many smooches have been exchanged in the boat. Ballpark figure.

It's funny, I haven't even thought about that. I've mostly just been thinking about the butts. Like, the number of butts that have sat on it. Because the thing is about Minnesota—and people might take offense to this—but I'm born and raised here, so whatever. People are prudes! I guess, at the fair, if people get a little boozed up, they might be smoochin'. Let's see... if it's been open for 100 years and some change, let's say it gets a bare minimum of 100 smooches a season? That could be way off in either direction. OK, I pulled out my calculator, I think that number would be like, 11,000.

True romantic history is yours.

I know, it's really beautiful.

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