by Jody Kerzman  | Photography: Rachael Neva Photo

Every summer for nine days, North Dakota State Fair Director Renae Korslien lives at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds. Literally.

“I bring my motorhome and park it right over there,” she says as she points out her office window at the State Fair Center. “I’ve done that for 30 years, only because I’m too nosy to go home!”            

Renae is a self-described people person, and it is the people that first drew her to work at the state fair. She started in the cash room back in 1974.

“We were in a little building down by the midway. Our boss was very strict—you didn’t talk, you didn’t play, you counted money. We started at 7 a.m. and we counted cash all day. We counted cash, itty bitty coupons, and tickets. We would sometimes take a break for lunch, I don’t remember, maybe a five-minute break and by midnight we were beat, but we kept working,” recalls Renae. “We did not use a calculator. We had to do our job with a pencil and paper. Can you imagine?”

Renae loved every second of those days she worked at the fair. The rest of the year, she worked part-time at a bank and helped out on the farm, a routine she continued until 1988.

“It was August, we had just finished the fair and we were all still tired. Fair manager Jerry Iverson called me up and asked me to come see him. He wanted me to come work for the fair full-time and said he had an offer I couldn’t refuse. I remember telling him I didn’t want a full-time job, but I agreed to go talk to him. Well, wouldn’t you know, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He offered me $12,000 a year. How could I say no to such a grand salary? It was huge.”

GROWING THE FAIR
Renae became the director of commercial sales, which meant it was her job to bring vendors—commercial spaces, food booths, and farm equipment dealers—to the fair. It was hard work, even for a people person like Renae.

“It was a down time in the ag industry and those dealers didn’t want to come to the fair. We had moved them from the shaded area of the fair grounds to the north end on the asphalt. They were mad and said they weren’t coming back,” she recalls. “Even after I’d gotten them to come a couple of times, they still didn’t want to spend time at the fair. They wanted their sales people on the road selling. They didn’t make any sales at the fair. But I told them they needed to do this for the youth. We need to teach our young people about agriculture. They need to see that tractor, touch that combine, understand how important our famers are. So many people today don’t have a touch for agriculture.”

But Renae had a touch for sales. Under her leadership, the fair grew to 650 commercial exhibitors, including indoor and outdoor exhibits and food vendors. That number remains steady even today.

“That is a lot of vendors, and when I tell that to other fair directors from across the country, they can’t believe it.”

Renae says it’s the people that keep those vendors coming back year after year. Each summer, the fair attracts 300,000 people, which Renae says for a state the size of North Dakota, is incredible. And those North Dakotans have always made the vendors feel welcome.

“Our vendors love North Dakotans. So many of them say, ‘We don’t make a lot of money here, but this is like a vacation.’ And so they keep coming back, and they bring their kids with them and have a little vacation at our fair.”

DREAM JOB
For years, Renae not only took charge of commercial sales, she also did all the bookkeeping for the fair. Her boss, Jerry Iverson, would often tell her she couldn’t continue doing both and ask her to pick one.

“He would ask me which one I liked the most and I would simply tell him, ‘I like them both the most,’” says Renae. “And it was true. I loved working with the financials because I was nosy. And I loved commercial sales because I loved that challenge and I loved meeting new people. I love people and I got to meet new ones every year.”

Looking back, Renae says Jerry saw something in her she never saw in herself. He saw a woman who was made for the job of state fair manager.

“I would have never taken a job like this, but I love it.”

Still, it wasn’t a job Renae thought she wanted. She says she still misses commercial sales, but remember, that also was a job she didn’t think she wanted. But in 2006 when Jerry Iverson told her he planned to retire at the end of that year, she knew she didn’t want his job as fair manager. He encouraged her to apply, and Renae reluctantly did, but then told the board to hire someone else, someone younger who could do the job for 30 years like Jerry had. But by December 2009, Renae was named director of the North Dakota State Fair.

“So, here I am.”

She ran her first fair in 2010, and after one year under her belt, was gearing up for the 2011 fair.

“It was going to be the best fair ever. We had planned it all out, sales were good, we had great acts lined up, we’d spent all our money on advertising.”

CHANGE OF PLANS
But the fair of 2011 would never happen. The Mouse River flooded—dikes were built throughout the city of Minot and on the State Fairgrounds—the State Fair Center and the newly constructed grandstand were top priority. Thousands of Minot residents lost their homes to floodwaters, and while the dikes held, the fairgrounds were in no shape for 300,000 visitors. Two weeks before the fair was scheduled to begin, Renae knew she had to cancel it.  

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” remembers Renae. “Nobody cancels the fair. But we had no idea the horrible muck that was underneath. We still had water over a lot of the grounds. It was horrible.”

WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT
But in 2012 Renae and the State Fair bounced back. And Renae hasn’t slowed down yet.  As she prepares for this year’s fair, she showers praises on all her staff, calling assistant fair manager Craig Rudland her “rock.”

“He makes me look good. He is the rock for me,” Renae says. “The entire staff is very good to me, and together we take pride in what we do all 365 days of the year here on the fairgrounds. But the whole fair is about the people.  It’s about the kids, the 4-H and FFA kids. They are our future. It’s up to us to mold them, and I honestly think the fair is a great place for those kids to learn.

“I often say the fairgrounds is a community. During the fair, one of my highlights each year is I can look out my office window and these kids are all outside the barn washing their cattle. And you know, it’s hot in July in North Dakota, and they’re on hot asphalt and the hose just happens to slip a few times and before you know it, those kids are shooting water at each other, and they’re having a great big water fight. I want so badly to join them, just once! It’s incredible, and they’re just so happy. We always have a few campers with the livestock people from across the state right down here and at night they pull their chairs around and just sit there and talk and laugh. It just can’t get any better than that.”

It is that sense of community that brings Renae so much joy, and what keeps her going on very little sleep for nine long days of the fair each summer. Renae’s family has been a great support to her throughout the years. It is a life she loves, even though she never thought she would, and it is a life she wishes she could continue forever.

“I would love to do it forever and ever because that would be my wish but that wouldn’t be fair to the fair. I know there will be an end someday. I can’t talk about it. It’s been my life.”

A life that’s been more than fair to Renae Korslien.   

For a video of Renae showing us some photos of the early years at the North Dakota State Fair, click here.