The sun hadn't risen over the Kansas State Fair, but 14-year-old Blake Bell had been up since 5 a.m. milking three shorthorn cows.

His brother, Colton, 12, was sleeping soundly in a cot nearby among the animals in the fair's dairy barn.

Not far away, the smells of cinnamon rolls, apple dumplings and biscuits and gravy wafted through the Pride of Kansas Building. A clock read 6 a.m., but operator Shannon Bauer had rolled out of her family's camper a good hour before, preparing for the day's masses.

While it's still dark and most fairgoers might be in bed, the Kansas State Fair wakes up early.

Not that it really ever sleeps, Gary Greever will tell those passing by. His 12-hour shift of watching the Poplar Street gate would end at 7 a.m., but he is never really alone.

"All night long there are deliveries," he said of food trucks and supplies driving in and out of the gate. "We had two horses and a mule come in at 3 a.m."

Crews out 

At 6 a.m. -- long before the streets become packed with people -- the fair is already buzzing with behind-the-scenes activity. Food trucks and trash trucks are moving about. Inmates are picking up trash, too, and a few 4-H kids are up preparing for the dairy and horse shows.

Highway patrolman on golf carts monitor activity. Meanwhile, crews using loaders and large trucks load up manure and bedding and haul it out of the grounds.

In all, the fair will spread about 600 yards of bedding in the Prairie Pavilion -- the main beef barn -- through the fair, said Keith Schroeder, the fair's physical plant supervisor, who arrives each day around 6 a.m. to monitor everything.

Rick Ingrim, Hutchinson, also keeps a watchful eye out. Each day of the fair, he arrives at either 5:30 or 7 a.m. -- depending on the day -- and gets on his horse as part of the fair's mounted patrol. He rides behind the livestock barns, as well as into the parking lots, assisting with traffic and other things.

"I'm a fair freak," he said with a laugh as he sat on his horse, Little Bay, and watched a few fairgoers straggle through the gate, along with 4-Hers leading their horses in and out of the horse barn. "I love the fair. I get to ride my horse and I still get to talk to everyone."

Cows

Fourteen-year-old Blake, who hails from Brookville, got up a good two hours before sunrise to help friends in the dairy barn milk their three shorthorn cows. 

He was showing a couple of heifer milking shorthorns Friday evening, noting he thought he had a good chance. One of his heifers was the champion junior shorthorn at the Kansas Junior Dairy Show last month.

A few others with dairy animals were stirring this time of day, including Liz Klamm, who lives near Hutchinson. She arrived at the barn around 4 a.m. to groom her son Jason's dry cow. Jason, a freshman at Kansas State University, planned to attend his morning classes before heading home in time to make the show.

"There was a lot to do," she said, adding she started grooming and clipping early so she could be at work at 7 a.m.

Apple dumplings

A glimpse into the screened-in kitchen at the Kansas Kitchen and Bakery inside the Pride of Kansas Building reveals that this sweet-smelling business is a true family affair.

Shannon Bauer begins the daily routine as her son, Justin, starts the biscuits and gravy. Homemade cinnamon rolls are rolled out fresh daily with the help of brother-in-law Rick McGaugh, of Arkansas. 

A niece and nephew also come in, along with a friend, Mollie Hayes of Derby, and a retired teacher from St. John, Joe Snyder. In all, they have 20 employees during the fair.

Bauer and her husband, Darrell, own the Wheatland Cafe in the Stafford County town of Hudson. It's open every Sunday and they cater during the week. But 10 days each year, for the past 20 years, they travel to Hutchinson to operate the fair's Kansas Kitchen and Bakery.

It's a popular food spot, with Bauer making 36 dozen cinnamon rolls a day, along with 500 apple dumplings. Dumplings are the most popular. They bake more than 5,000 for the entire fair.

"It really is fun. I get to work with so many good people," Bauer said, adding that some of her help and customers she sees only once a year, during the fair.

That includes Hutchinson resident Ronald Gipe, who has worked at the fair's Eisenhower Building for the past four years. Every morning, Gipe walks across the grounds to the Pride of Kansas Building for breakfast, getting there well before the Bauers' kitchen opens for business at 7 a.m..

In four years, he has never wavered on his breakfast stop -- or his menu choice.

It's always biscuits and gravy.

"They treat me right," he said as he ate. "And it is always good."