Mille Lacs County 4-H food stand ends era of serving at races


A half-century of the Mille Lacs County 4-H food stand operating during Princeton Speedway races has come to an end.

The stand, which has helped fund 4-H activities, will continue serving food during the county fair and during this year’s May 17 car show and swap meet at the fairgrounds.

Yvonne Gunnink, a 4-H club leader in rural Princeton for 45 years after growing up as a 4-H’er, remembers when the 4-H food stand began operating. Gunnink recalls that a couple of men had the food stand first and that it was when Princeton Speedway began. She said she believes the Mille Lacs County 4-H organization took over the food stand about two years later.

Princeton Speedway is in its 58th year, having started in 1956, according to Ron Olene, of Princeton, a longtime Princeton Speedway supporter.

Frank Hartmann, president of the Mille Lacs County Agricultural Society, also known as the fair board, confirmed that the 4-H has had the food stand since about the late 1950s to early ‘60s.

Gunnink remembers 4-H’ers raising funds to construct the 4-H building in 1979 that has the current 4-H food stand on the south end and 4-H exhibit area on the north end. The 4-H clubs throughout the county each sewed together one or more quilt blocks and then seamstresses stitched the blocks together to make a quilt to raffle as a fundraiser for the new building. Gunnink remembers her youngest daughter Arlene and Yvonne’s late husband John selling tickets for the quilt raffle.

Some of the people who are adults today who worked at the 4-H food stand remember that the stand’s food offerings were fairly limited – hot dogs, pop and chips, mainly. Over the years it expanded to include hamburgers, cotton candy, pies, sloppy Joes walking tacos and more.

Ironically, the selection was narrowed last year as part of an agreement with Princeton Speedway Inc., which rented the speedway facilities from the Mille Lacs County fair board. It was the first year that the county fair board rented them out to someone to run the speedway races. Princeton Speedway Inc. added its own vendors, resulting in competition for the 4-H food stand, and the 4-H organization’s agreement with Princeton Speedway last year was not to offer certain food items that the outside vendors were offering.

Why the change

Mille Lacs County 4-H director Hannah Martinson explained why there will be no 4-H food stand at the races this year. Having to decrease the food offerings last year decreased the 4-H food stand’s profits considerably, she said.

Then, as the Mille Lacs County 4-H Federation was negotiating for a food-service agreement for this year’s speedway races, the federation was told that it would have to increase the commission it pays to have the right to sell food during the races, Martinson said.

“We have a food stand committee to help make decisions” and while looking at the numbers, “we couldn’t justify” operating at the speedway under the higher commission, Martinson said.

Martinson added that the 4-H’ers have found an up-side to it all. Because of the changes, the 4-H food stand will no longer have to pay a sales tax on the food it sells.

The net profit from the food stand operation supported the hiring of a manager and helped fund 4-H activities, such as taking exhibits and/or animals to the state fair, attending education camps and putting on workshops. However, the funding arrangement has changed.

Originally some of net profit was split up among the county’s 4-H clubs, which in turn was obligated to have members and adults in the club serve a certain minimum amount of time at the food stand each year. The rest of the profit went to the county 4-H federation. In latter years, all the net profit went to the federation as the federation realized higher costs to fund 4-H activities, Martinson said.

An average of 15-20 would work at the 4-H food stand each time.

More than dollars and cents

The value of the 4-H food stand was also not just about money, according to many who were interviewed about the food stand’s history for this story.

Jeff Stobb, 50, a lifelong supporter of the county’s 4-H activities and who worked at the food stand as a 4-H’er, said it’s disappointing the 4-H food stand won’t be operating now at the speedway races.

Youth development, which 4-H is all about, was so important at the food stand because it taught the 4-H’ers how to handle money and make change, how to prepare the food and how to interact with the customers, Stobb, Martinson and longtime 4-H leader Judy Hible said. It was also fun for many 4-H’ers to work at the food stand, Martinson said, who worked at the Sherburne County 4-H food stand when she was a 4-H’er.

Stobb began helping at the 4-H food stand when he was in the third grade and a member of the Garfield Climbers. As an adult 4-H leader, “we always wanted to try to make it (the food stand) a learning experience,” Stobb said. “With 4-H, so much relies on public support and putting the best foot forward, benefiting kids, learning stuff and speaking to people.”

Now the rules for working at the 4-H food stand allow the youngest group of 4-H’ers, the Clover Buds, to work there as long as they are with their parents.

“The kids bring the food to the customers,” Stobb continued. “You can really see the kids develop in confidence and ability in the course of a year. It teaches you to interact with customers. You meet a lot of customers who are happy you are serving them.”

Sometimes the customer is not happy and among the lessons the 4-H’ers learn at the food stand is to not take that personally, Stobb added.

Stobb also said he doesn’t hold it against Princeton Speedway Inc. for making the changes that led to the 4-H food stand committee’s decision to stop operating at the races.

Marlene Trunk, another longtime 4-H leader in the county, was not so forgiving of the situation.

“It still makes me mad they want to take this money away from the kids,” she said. “It helped them go on state fair trips. It benefited 4-H. Some families can’t afford to send their kids to the state fair.”

The Mille Lacs County 4-H Federation, meanwhile, is also looking out for its budget and Martinson said that she and the Federation will continue searching for events for the 4-H food stand to serve at.

Brian Santema, who co-managed the 4-H food stand 1987-91, then later assisted in managing it and finally became sole manager about four years ago, said this about the 4-H food stand change: “I’m not happy about it. It’s been there over 50 years. It’s all about the money. Now we’re losing kids who are learning so much, life lessons, who want to work, and the fans were very loyal.”

Santema remembers how sometimes a race fan would ask a 4-H’er at the 4-H food stand what 4-H is all about and the 4-H’er would “jump on that” and explain it.

“It makes them think what it is about and they have to speak publicly and speak correctly,” Santema said.