The Most Popular Fair On Earth

Billed as “The most popular fair on earth,” the Hillsdale County Fair in Hillsdale, Michigan had its beginnings in 1851 when the first fair was held on the court house lawn. The claim is, perhaps, a little overblown. An unofficial poll of Maryland residents as to the existence of a Hillsdale Fair drew blank stares. It was clear the few, if any, people on the eastern seaboard had heard of the fair, let alone Hillsdale. Even if the claim isn’t true, Hillsdale residents have reason to be proud of their fair. As fairs go, it is one of the best around. We had been told that the fair had changed little since the mid-1950s, which is my first memory of it.

For residents of northern Indiana and Ohio and southern Michigan, it was a big deal and it is worthy of note that our little northern Indiana school gave us a day off to attend the fair. It had the other county fairs in the area beat all hollow. The Steuben County, Indiana fair, for example, was but a poor shadow of the Hillsdale fair and hardly worth visiting at all.

We decided, my wife and I, to test the validity of the claim; to see if the fair indeed had changed little. We attended the fair on its opening day, a fine, sunny Sunday in late September. At first blush, the claim was true. It had changed little. The main way had changed little. There, backing up to the fence around the race track, were the usual games of chance; the baseball throw being the most popular. The fun house also was there at its appointed spot. Some of the prizes being given at the base ball throw even appeared to date from the 1950s.

Across the main way, backing up to the fence along the road, were the usual rides in their usual places; the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Scrambler and the Ferris Wheel. The Ferris wheel had been modernized and no longer has the rickety seats holding two (three in a pinch) people which swayed alarmingly as you went round and round. Those seats had been replaced by ones of more substance which held upwards of six people, three facing forward and three facing backward. These seats did not appear to sway. A pity, that, as it was one sure way to get to hold the girl sitting next to you; start that seat swaying back and forth as you sat at the top of the wheel waiting for more passengers to get on board.

There was one new ride, a change, which can best be described as a drop ride. People sat buckled into seats and were raised about 30 feet off the ground. When the seats reached the top of the ride, they were released and the riders dropped about 25 feet before slowing to a gentle stop the last 5 feet. No opportunity to hold your girl on this one, so what was the point.

There was also the Merry Go Round, a good one with a proper hurdy gurdy mechanical band beating out-of-tune music. A good ride for small children and couples. The brass ring dispenser, however, was missing. One has to assume that leaning out from your mount to catch a brass ring is considered too dangerous for today’s generation. I never knew of anyone falling off their horse, or lion or griffen, but I did know of some children who were awarded a free ride for catching a ring.

Moving on, there were the same animal barns with the same assortment of cows, horses, sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens. Even though it was opening day, many had already garnered blue, red and white ribbons from the judges. Just as well in the case of the chickens as many were in the process of pulling out their feathers because of the stress of all of the visitors walking by. Some of the goats and sheep had yet to be judged and, here and there, well groomed sheep could be seen clad in colored spandex sweaters, the bright orange, green or blue sweaters keeping them clean and well coiffed until time to be judged. Elsewhere, goats stood patiently as razors were passed over them one last time. There was an air of heightened expectation as animals and owners awaited their time in the judging ring.

A couple of buildings were filled with quilts and jams and jellies; crocheted gee gaws of every description; and art work, good and bad, all prejudged as some also proudly displayed their ribbons of accomplishment. I was reminded of a neighbor lady who used to collect buttons which she carefully stitched into butterflies and birds on to 8 by 10 inch pieces of white poster board, the exotic images taking color and shape from the unusual, and often exotic, buttons she used. She displayed her creations at the Steuben County Fair and always won a blue ribbon for her efforts. She lived with her son’s family and relations between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were not cordial. When her son died, she was unceremoniously moved out of the house on the day of the funeral and all of her blue ribbon efforts ended up in the dust heap.

All things change, of course, and this includes the fair. Gone were the hucksters of miracle cleaners and waxes for house and automobile; cleansers and waxes so good that you could set your car on fire and, in the case of the wax, the finish would be unharmed. In their place were stands selling food. The stands selling foot-long hot dogs were gone, replaced by those selling gyros. Funnel cakes were still available, but so was more exotic fare such as deep fried Twinkies and Milky Way Bars. Cotton candy is no longer available made to order; it now comes prepackaged. A shame, that, as it was always part of the treat of getting cotton candy to watch it spun onto that cardboard cylinder and handed to you warm and airy and ready to eat.

Gone completely was the old baseball field and grandstand. Its disappearance marked the greatest change of the last 50 years; the demise of town-sponsored baseball teams. Part of the ritual of going to the fair used to be visiting the baseball field to see the hometown team play (the day-off to visit the fair always coincided with the scheduling of that game). We never stayed long, just enough time to sit and eat our foot long and drink a coke. Let’s face it, nothing is duller than a bush-league baseball game.