Minnis Minute: Fair Memories

An AP story reminds us that we will not be doing what thousands of us have done every Labor Day weekend for all our lives -- go the Michigan State Fair.

Due to a looming $1.8 billion budget deficit, the fair ended its 160-year run last year. A $7 million Halloween line item by lawmakers last year to extend the fair for one more year turned out to be a trick instead of a treat when Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed it.

The Michigan State Fair is history.

Many myths surround the history of the fair. One is that it is the "oldest" or "longest running" state fair. Both statements are false. New York has the honor of having the oldest and longest running fair. The first New York fair was held in 1838, and it has run continuously since 1841. ("Continuously" excludes a hiatus during World War II when most, if not all, fairs where shuttered.)

Michigan's first attempt at a state fair was in Ann Arbor in 1847, but it was a spectacular flop as only a few exhibitors showed up. The first successful fair was held in Detroit in 1849. The Michigan State Fair ran continuously -- more or less -- through 2009. No fair was held in 1893 in honor of the World's Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago and organized by prominent Detroiter Thomas W. Palmer, namesake of Palmer Park and subdivision across Woodward from what would one day become the "permanent home" of the Michigan State Fair.

The Columbian Exposition "celebrating" the 400 anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World was also called the Chicago World's Fair and is known for many innovations, including the Ferris Wheel, the World's Largest Stove (built in Detroit) and the modern "midway," named after the "Midway Plaisance" area of the Chicago exposition that included carnival rides and games.

Until 1905, the fair rotated venues. The second fair was held in Ann Arbor and future fairs were held Lansing, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Adrian and East Saginaw.

In 1889, the Michigan State Agricultural Society announced that the state fair would be "permanently located" on the fairgrounds in Lansing. However, the ambitious Lansing fair went bankrupt within a few years. The land was sold to Ransom E. Olds who built an assembly plant on the site in 1901.

In 1905, department store magnate J.L. Hudson and a few investors formed the State Fair Land Company and accumulated 135 acres at Woodward and Baseline Road (Eight Mile). They sold the land to the Michigan State Agricultural Society for $1, and Detroit became the "permanent home" of the Michigan State Fair.

Immediately, big buildings and barns sprang up. One structure, the "Michigan Building," was actually built for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. It was then dismantled and moved to Detroit. It is not known when the Michigan Building was torn down. It still appeared in photographs as late as 1947.

A 1908 postcard drawing of the fair shows the Michigan Building, countless barns and the Grandstand, which was in use until a Wayne County Circuit judge declared it unsafe in 1971. At the time, the Grandstand was host to many drug-laden rock concerts in the summer, featuring bands such as Black Sabbath, Amboy Dukes, Brownsville Station and Savoy Brown.

The 1908 drawing also shows the Detroit streetcars running along Woodward. The cars' turnaround area at the fairgrounds is still used by D-DOT buses today. A train can be seen chugging along the Grand Trunk tracks at the back of the property. The "State Fair Train" used to travel the countryside picking of farmers, kids and livestock for an exciting week at the Michigan State Fair.

Agriculture, animals and kids remained important to the Michigan State Fair through its final year, 2009.

In the early 20th century, automobiles began to show up at the fairgrounds, especially following Henry Ford's introduction of the Model T - the "Tin Lizzie" - in 1908.

William Jennings Bryan, as a Chautauqua speaker, orated at the 1906 fair, years before he was the prosecutor in the 1925 Scopes Trial. He was defeated in 1908 by William Howard Taft for president, the same year Taft stumped at the Michigan State Fair. Another presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kennedy, spoke at the Michigan State Fair in 1960.

No fair was held from 1942 through 1946 due to the war. In April 1942, careless smoking by teenage boys caused a fire at the fair that destroyed two buildings. Firefighters were hampered in their efforts by too-small water lines, causing them to "pump water away from each other instead of on the fire."

Of course, pent-up demand for automobiles following World War II made the automakers' pavilions popular at the post-war fairs. However, new inventory was hard to come by in 1947 when the fair resumed. An exception was the F-1 pickup, Ford's first in its popular F-Series trucks that continue today with the F-250 -350 and -450. Hudson Motor Car Co., which J.L. Hudson helped finance, came out that year with first the "step down" body design that allowed passengers to step down into their vehicles due to the floorboard being lower than the chassis.

The auto companies were not the only "stars" at the Michigan State Fair. Others included Bob Hope, a frequent visitor who took part in the 1949 centennial fair and attended as recently as 1972 with his wife, Dolores, who is still alive. Other stars included Sonny and Cher, Glen Campbell, the Jackson Five, the Supremes, Bobby Vinton and, of course, Alice Cooper.

The legendary Seabiscuit's winning years began in 1936 at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. Another form of horsepower, NASCAR, also made its appearance at the fairgrounds in 1951. The 250-mile NASCAR race commemorated the 250th anniversary of the founding of Detroit in 1701.

Fair attendance peaked at 1.2 million in 1966, the year before the devastating race riots in Detroit. The Michigan State Fairgrounds were used that year by the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne for their helicopters. In 2008, fair attendance had fallen to 217,000.

The fair entered a period of decline following the riots. Detroit residents who could afford to move fled the city for the suburbs never to return. Buildings and barns disappeared without a mention.

Fortunately, several architecturally significant buildings remain: the Bandshell, the Poultry & Rabbit Building and the Coliseum, Horticulture (Agriculture) and Dairy Buildings. The latter three are on the National Register of Historic Places and are fine examples of neoclassical revival architecture inspired by the World's Fair exhibitions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were designed by little-known architect Lynn W. Fry of the State Building Department.

No one knows what will become of these local and national treasures now that the fairgrounds are all but closed to the public except for Joe Dumars' Fieldhouse. This also goes for the World's Largest Stove, which was moved to the fairgrounds in 1965 and restored under then-General Manager John Hertel for the fair's sesquicentennial celebration in 1998.

Promoters of the Detroit location of the fair say original deeds mandate that a state fair be held on the site at Woodward and Eight Mile. Since no one has challenged this in court, we may never know. J.L. Hudson never married and left no personal papers. We do not know his original intentions.

The Michigan State Fair may be reincarnated elsewhere - Lansing, Grand Rapids, Adrian - under some type of private/corporate auspices, but it is doubtful it will return to Detroit.

And that's a pity.

Legal News staff writer John Minnis is co-author, along with Lauren Beaver, of the just-released Arcadia Publishing photo history, "Michigan State Fair." It is available at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Costco, Sam's Club, many retailers and museum gift shops and online at amazon.com and arcadiapublishing.com.

Published: Thu, Sep 2, 2010

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