Freeborn County Fair: It’s the dough

Published 9:18 am Friday, August 1, 2008

Tom Thumb Donuts at the Freeborn County Fair are ”made in sight for your delight,” according to Tom Bettenburg, vice president and part owner of the firm that has been making the treats in Albert Lea yearly since the early 1980s.

The Tom Thumb firm takes pride in being the first in the nation to make “mini-donuts.” And for nearly 58 years the mobile stands associated with fairs, and especially with the Minnesota State Fair, are now serving the third generation of customers.

This week the Tom Thumb trailers are at the Olmsted County Fair in Rochester, the Uptown Art Fair in Minneapolis and at the Freeborn County Fair.

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The trailer at the Albert Lea fair selling mini-donuts described as being “light as a feather” is near the grandstand. There are four small cooking units on the counter under the swing-out canopy and can be used to make the donuts fresh and hot.

“We can scale up or down from one to four units to meet the demand,” Bettenburg said.

For the customers, and especially the younger generation, there’s a certain fascination in watching the dough being dropped one donut at a time out of container into the hot oil which is 100 percent soybean. Then the small round doughnuts travel in a circle in the oil to a metal flipper. Here the doughnuts get turned over to complete the cooking process. The next step is to go up on a small metal conveyor to a tray, where they are assembled by the dozen, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, then sold to the customer.

A Tom Thumb dozen, according to Bettenburg, is 16 mini-donuts. He adds that each cooking unit can produce two bags (or dozen) a minute.

Incidentally, there are no doughnut holes, which would be the size of marbles.

The name Tom Thumb (and Thumbelina) has through the years been associated with tiny mythical characters in children’s literature. A 39-inch-tall person named Gen. Tom Thumb was promoted by showman P.T. Barnum as a sideshow attraction in the late 1800s. The real name for Barnum’s creation was Charles Stratton, (1838-1883). To the south in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas are convenience stores using the name Tom Thumb. And in 1949 John and Jan Desmond of the Twin Cities decided to use this name as the registered trademark for their new mini-donut creation to be sold at the Minnesota State Fair and other events.

Bettenburg said the recipe for the dough is based on a recipe Jan obtained from the coffee shop at the Fields Department Store in Chicago.

The Desmonds operated the business until 2006 when it was purchased by three of their employees — Bettenburg, who has been on the road for 28 years, plus Bob Everett, who is president, and Orin Gaul, who is also a vice president.

Credit for bringing the Tom Thumb independent concession to the Freeborn County Fair goes to Howard Recknor. He visited the unit in Austin in the late 1970s and “invited us to come to the Albert Lea fair,” Bettenburg explained.

A highlight for Tuesday for Bettenburg came when Recknor, now retired after his years with both the Freeborn County Fair and later the Minnesota State Fair, stopped at the Tom Thumb stand for a nostalgic visit.

The trailer with its swing out canopy serves as the base for the stand near the grandstand and is divided into two parts. One part is for the kitchen where the dough’s ingredients are carefully weighted, mixed, water added, and blended in a larger mixer. Then the donuts are cooked as needed. The second part of the mobile unit is used for sleeping quarters.

Next week this trailer will be going to the Mower County Fair in Austin, then on to the Steele County Fair in Owatonna, and conclude the season at the Minnesota State Fair.

The Tom Thumb firm has its corporate offices in Woodbury and a shop in Stillwater. During the warmer months of the year the five trailers go to 35 to 40 events a year in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. During the winter months the owners do maintenance work on the equipment, especially the donut making units, and store the trailers at the Minnesota State Fair.

Bettenburg said the firm has a Web site,, where students can apply for part-time work, especially at the state fair, and where merchandise featuring the “light as a feather” logo will soon be featured and sold.

“This fair has been good to us,” he concluded.