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Michigan State Fair Brings the Farm to Detroit

  • Joan Silvi

Roughly half a million visitors attend the Michigan State Fair every summer. It's the country's oldest state fair, first held in 1849. Originally, it moved around Michigan each year. But in 1905, it settled in Detroit for good. State Fair director John Hertel says it was the right move. "It is in the state's largest city and the state's largest county. It's one hour's drive time or less from more than half the state's population. Now that's where a state fair should be!"

The fair's original purpose was to showcase agriculture, which once employed a majority of Americans. But society changed. The number of people engaged in farming steadily declined, and in Michigan, the auto industry began to grow, drawing more and more workers to the cities.

"We used to have a population that even in the 50's and 60's had a lot of relatives that lived on the farm," Mr. Hertel says, adding "there's not much of that anymore, so almost the only opportunity people get to find out [about agriculture] is at a state fair." He says that's why the importance of agriculture and livestock at the state fair has increased. "What we've done at this state fair is to actually reinvigorate our effort to bring in more and more agriculture each year. And the more agriculture we bring in, the more popular the fair seems to get."

One of the most popular efforts this year is the Miracle of Life exhibit, where animals are born on site. Visitors have had a chance to see newborn calves, piglets, lambs, goats and other livestock. Rod Jordan supervises the animals. "Livestock includes everything from pigeons to ducks to poultry to rabbits to goats… cows, horses, pigs… the whole gamut," he says, "everything that involves agriculture." Mr. Jordan says Americans have gotten so far removed from the source of their food that the livestock and agriculture exhibits at the State Fair fill an important educational niche.

Sitting in the dairy barn, he observes that many of the visitors who enter this exhibit have never seen a cow give milk. "All they see is milk in a plastic bottle in the store. You can go to the other side of this building and you can actually milk a cow. It's primarily for kids, but it's education." He says that aspect of the fair is important to everyone involved. "I think that's one of the major reasons why the agricultural people you'll see here - no matter what they're showing, whether it be dairy cattle or beef cattle or horses, whatever - are bringing the story of the family farm to the urban setting, which is the State Fair [in Detroit]. … We're trying to educate kids about what the farmer does and where the products they enjoy came from."

As at every state fair, the Michigan organizers gradually expanded beyond an agriculture theme and added rides, games and entertainment. Fair Director John Hertel says that's a big draw for today's urban and suburban fairgoers. "While in the beginning, it was mostly [focused on] 'what's agricultural America doing,' it changed quite rapidly in the late 1800's and even more rapidly in the early 1900's [to become] a place [with] more and more [focus on] what machines are available, what inventions are available, and then what was added to it was the component of a festival, having fun."

Strolling down the fair's midway, crowded with brightly painted rides blaring music, games of chance and people having fun, Gail Dinkins says it's the rides that have kept her coming to the fair for more than 30 years. But she enjoys the agriculture and livestock exhibits, too, adding that they offer a valuable experience for people who live in cities and suburbs. "Because it's something you can still show your kids. It's like teaching them something every day. That this is how life could be, or could have been."

And still is, for the roughly 50,000 farms in Michigan… whose industry generates $40 billion annually. That makes agriculture the second most important economic sector in the state. Each summer, in the heart of the auto industry, it gets its place in the spotlight at the Michigan State Fair.