The start of the Upper Peninsula State Fair

Courtesy photo Celebrate the harvest with ripe tomatoes.

ESCANABA — The history of the Upper Peninsula State Fair is about independent, tough, hard-working people.

For many years Michigan sponsored two state fairs. Michigan’s only State Fair prior to 1928 was held in Detroit. The distance made it impossible to show U.P. livestock and produce in state fair. The “short cut” — the Mackinac Bridge was nonexistent then.

The state legislature passed a bill granting Upper Michigan its own State Fair in 1927.

Before that time, fairs were held, but they were not considered “State Fairs.”

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, hardy pioneers came to Delta County to live off the land. Lumbermen, fishermen, and farmers carved out a living. The harvest was rich and needed to be shown.

According to history files, the Delta County Agricultural Society arranged what was probably the county’s first fair.

On Oct. 22, 1877, the Tilden House bowling alley, billiard room and barn overflowed with pumpkins, potatoes, venison, fish and wild cranberries.

Pioneer families gathered at Escanaba’s finest inn to celebrate the harvest!

In 1909, in an effort to keep the county fair growing, Mr. Herman Salinsky of the Fair Savings Bank conducted an agricultural exhibit in his store. He paid the premiums out of his own pocket.

In 1928, the U.P.’s first state fair was held in mid-September. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents after 6 p.m.

The great showcase of the north was born. The annual event would continue and expand. Only two things have canceled the fair, the Second World War and the polio epidemic in the 1950’s.

When August evenings have the cool flavor of autumn, it’s time to reminisce about fairs past. Everybody has his or her favorite fair memory. Things like claiming a lost little brother under the grandstand, or the time a best friend got sick all over the Tilt-a-Whirl, come to mind.

Parents and grandparents remember congregating at the beer tent for a 10 cent glass of brew.

My Dad recalls watching the six foot long sturgeon in the cedar-framed aquarium in the old exhibition building.

A few eyebrows were raised in the 40’s when the hoochy-coochy dancing girls were an attraction at the fair. Eeeka, the “snake lady,” was another show not soon to be forgotten.

Teenage pranksters remember stealing eggs from the poultry barn and dropping then into unsuspecting people’s pockets. Then these rowdy kids would bump into the person, breaking the hidden egg!

Some folks recall the hours and hours of work put into showing an animal at the fair. The ribbons won for first place potatoes, green beans, canned tomatoes, jellies, homemade quilts or artwork, are some of the things that made fairs memorable.

The U.P. State Fair has changed some over the years. The grandstand and the Ruth Butler Buildings have been rebuilt since “grandpa’s Fair days,” but most of the important things about the fair stay the same.

Who can grow the best head of cabbage and who can make the best pie or pastie, that’s what the fair is all about. Celebrate the harvest!


Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.