Feeling the love: 50 couples exchange marriage, renewal vows at county fair

Gazette photo by Elissa Cottle
Shelley Conroy, left, slides a wedding band on her husband, Tom’s, left hand ring finger as 10th Judicial District Judge Greg Galler looks on during the couple’s free wedding ceremony Friday at the Washington County Fair.

LAKE ELMO — Before Internet dating, there were newspaper personal ads for people like me — looking for love among part-time receptionists wanted and slightly dented Toyotas for sale.
“Do you like small town festivals, browsing shops, simply walking hand in hand?” The opening line of this ad had me hooked. I do, as a matter of fact, like small town festivals, I replied to 5-foot, 8-inch, blonde/blue, sensitive and single.
Fifteen anniversaries later, my now-husband and I, recent Stillwater residents, made good on our mutual vision of romantic backdrops. Amidst crispy giant waffle bites and the dust kicked up by graceful horse hooves, we renewed our wedding vows at this year’s Washington County Fair. We were among 12 weddings and 38 renewals at the fair — among them Gazette sports columnist George Thole and his wife, Karen.
Why renew at the fair?
“The first 50 years was pretty good, so why not sign on for more?” said George Thole. “Without my wife, I’d be just another pretty face.”
Karen said one of the best things about their marriage is how her husband “brings humor” into their life together in Stillwater.
Tucked between the Fairest Garden and the 4-H building, ceremonies were led by 10th Judicial District Judge Greg Galler. The judge proposed the idea of free, five-minute, fairground weddings and renewals and fair board member Margot Rheinberger of Stillwater took charge of organizing America’s only free wedding/renewal county-fair attraction on record.
“She scoured garage sales to get us these tablecloths,” Galler said.
White embroidered cloths draped two tables for couples to sign up and sign their certificates afterward. Photos taken by Galler’s wife, Sue, are posted at www.judgegreggaller.com.
Galler wore his official black judge’s robe, but romance filled his fair eyes. He recited from four traditional scripts, two choices each for wedding and renewal couples. However, a nimble judge can ad lib, such as when Caprice and Mike Perron, of Grant renewed after 22 married years.
When it came to the “recognition of rings” part, Caprice explained the absence of Mike’s ring.
“He has some swollen fingers, but he’s got the mark,” she said.
No problem.
“Mike, repeat after me,” said the judge. “Caprice, I proudly and lovingly have ‘the mark’ of this ring that you placed on my hand as a symbol of my love and commitment to you.”
The show goes on.
Shelley and Tom Conroy of Lake Elmo had met “on the street” near Shelley’s mother’s home and fell in love. Two months ago. Shelley said they wanted “something simple. It’s really beautiful out here.”
Dreamy newlywed Tom said he married Shelley at the fair “because she’s a beautiful woman and she’s awesome.”
Galler was moved by another couple that “had been wanting to get married for some time but simply could not afford to do so” until the fair offered free weddings. Another couple, renewing, touched the judge because they mentioned that the late Judge Kenneth J. Maas had married them 10 years ago. Galler quickly removed his robe to show them the initials “KJM” hand written on the inside — the robe was a gift from Maas, before his death in 2007 at 75, now treasured by Judge Galler.
Rheinberger said next year’s fair weddings and renewals will be even better – with a sound system beckoning fair goers, via Pachelbel’s “Canon” violins, to declare their love or simply witness romance at this “small town festival … walking hand in hand.