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A Brief History of Michigan's State Fair - Background Reading

The Michigan State Agricultural Society sponsored Michigan's first state fair in Detroit, September 25-27, 1849. It was the second state fair in the United States. The first was in New York. For the next several years, a different Michigan city hosted the state fair. Among the host communities were Adrian, Grand Rapids and Jackson.

Lansing, the state capital, was chosen as the permanent home of the state fair in 1889 because it was the state capital, near the home of the Michigan Agricultural College and centrally located with good rail service. The Michigan State Agricultural Society borrowed money to develop a fairgrounds in Lansing, but bad weather reduced the fair's income and the society had to sell its property to pay its debts. (The Lansing Businessmen's Association purchased the land and later sold it to R. E. Olds for his automobile factory.)

The state fair was designed to encourage interaction between rural agriculture and urban industry. It quickly evolved into a rich blend of education, recreation and entertainment. In 1853 the fair opened on September 28, a day that "was quite cool, but not sufficiently so to render it uncomfortable." The latest machinery, a Dry Land and Under Water Excavator ("an ingenious piece of mechanism" possessing "properties of an excavator [and] a pile-driver"), was shown alongside a screw-and-lever cheese press and a lightning rod and point. The Hall of Fine Arts displayed daguerreotypes and paintings near the Dairy and Field Crop building, which exhibited "one beast big enough almost to feed a regiment."

By 1855 the state fair covered "about 20 acres" and included a Mechanics' Hall. "No pain or expense is being spared to make everything complete," the Detroit Free Press reported prior to the opening of the 1858 Michigan State Fair. That year, the fairgrounds were located in Detroit on the west side of Woodward, between Duffield and Adams—"just far enough from the centre of the city to make a pleasant walk."

A band of community leaders, including department store founder Joseph L. Hudson, brought the state fair to its present location in 1905. They purchased 135 acres just south of Eight Mile Road in Detroit and deeded it to the Michigan State Agricultural Society. Three years later the fairgrounds could be reached using city cars of the Detroit United Railway, which carried passengers from all railroad stations and all points of the city, for five cents. The fair settled in Detroit for good. The society managed the State Fair until 1921, when the property was transferred to the State of Michigan.

By 1913 the state fair's program included a Detroit Symphony Orchestra concert, a girls' milking contest, vaudeville shows and the auction of two steers by Governor Wilber M. Brucker. And in the husband-calling competition, Mrs. Effie Mills "proved her prowess . . . retaining the honors she captured last year."

A second Michigan State Fair was organized by farmers in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the 1920s. Escanaba was favored as a location for the new fair because it was centrally located with good rail and road connections. The first Upper Peninsula State Fair was held in 1928 and continues today. Currently, the Michigan Department of Agriculture manages this fair.

The Aerial Circus entertained state fairgoers in 1938 with "The Human Bullet" and "The Aerial Demons," who performed without a net 150 feet above them. Also featured that year was the "Largest Animated Model Ever Constructed," boasting "More Than 750 Life Like Figures."

By the end of World War II, the nonagricultural side of the State Fair had grown, and “the interdependency of agriculture and industry” was stressed. This shift was due in part to the fair's more urban and industrial Detroit location.

During the 1948 state fair, the Women's Premium book listed all prizes awarded to women exhibitors in the home arts, including those for two classes of handmade button-holes ("bound by hand" and "handworked"). First prizes were $3.50.

Displays of produce and livestock continued to be the mainstay of the state fair. On August 27, 1950, The Detroit News featured a photo of Pete Hellner, a Washtenaw County farmers who had won more than 1,500 premium ribbons during his 24 successive years of exhibiting hogs.

Throughout the years buildings were added to the fairgrounds, including a bandshell, a poultry building, a coliseum, a dairy cattle barn, a horse exhibit and a grandstand. In 1951, Cunningham's Drug Stores provided two trains for free rides around the grounds.

Popular entertainers have long appeared at the state fair. Bob Hope, along with Governor G. Mennen Williams, led the 1951 state fair parade from the riverfront to Adelaide Street. Hope, the Ink Spots, Marilyn Maxwell and the Rockettes performed at the state fair that year.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, state fair attendance grew steadily, reaching one million in 1966.

The “baby boom” generation brought an emphasis on families and education to the state fair, which began to feature rides, folk singers, and rock-and-roll by the 1970s and country western events by the 1990s. Teens from the city assisted with the care of livestock being exhibited by 4-H members from the state's outlying rural communities.

As of the 1990s, all Michigan State Fair buildings had been renovated and the grounds landscaped. Popular with fairgoers is an exhibition where visitors see the live births of farm animals. In 1998, the 25-foot-high Michigan Stove, originally exhibited at 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was restored and placed on permanent exhibition at the fair.

Information about Michigan's State Fair based on introduction from Historical Directory of American Agricultural Fairs, by Donald B. Marti. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/05/2010

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