ESCANABA - When Robert E. Carlson recently looked over his collection of more than 75 premium ribbons his mother and other family members were awarded at the U.P. State Fair over the years, he was flooded with memories of the days when the ribbons meant more than a sense of pride to those who received them - particularly his mom.
Eighty-four-year-old Carlson said a number of the ribbons from his mother date back to 1916 and 1917, years before the name of the annual event officially became the U.P. State Fair in 1927. Carlson said the last ribbon of his that is dated was from 1941.
"At that time, it was known as the Northern State Fair," Carlson recalled, adding that his mother, Hannah Carlson, looked forward to entering exhibits each year but it wasn't for the ribbons, but the money that each winning entry was awarded.
Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press
Robert E. Carlson of Escanaba shows off a photograph of a portion of the 75 premium ribbons — some dating back to 1916 — that he recently donated to the U.P. State Fair. He also holds a letter of appreciation for the ribbons that was written by the fair’s exhibitor’s manager, Sandra Groleau.
"My father died when I was 6 and my mother had three children to raise by herself," Carlson said. "There was no Social Security or anything like that at the time so anything that brought a little money into the family was very welcome."
Carlson said his mother cleaned houses and doctors' offices as well as the Delft Theater to support herself and her children and looked for any other opportunity to earn more money.
"We lived about three blocks from the fair and my mother usually entered her canning," he said. "She wove rugs and entered those, too. She also entered her crocheting and knitting. It wasn't much at the time - maybe 50 cents - but every penny counted in those days."
Carlson also recalls that families were allowed to go into the dairy barns at the fair and bring home some of the milk from the dairy cows.
"I don't know if it was just because we were kids, but they let us have it," Carlson said. "I remember going early in the morning and they would give it to us for free. Quite a few were there and we had buckets. In those days the milk didn't need to be pasteurized."
He also remembered seeing a group of cats lined up hoping for a squirt or two as the cows were milked.
In addition to his mom, Carlson said some of the ribbons in his collection were awarded to his sister, Ruth Peterson, who usually entered her baked goods for judging. Carlson said when the ribbons fell into his possession, he did his best to fix them up.
"They were handed down to me because I'm the last one in my family," he said. "Some were getting frayed and I trimmed them off. But most were in super shape."
Only recently, Carlson decided to donate them all to the fair. While it was suggested that he enter them as an exhibit, he declined, saying he wanted them to be a part of the fair's collection of memorabilia.
"I was told the collection would possibly win a prize but I don't want a prize," he said. "I wanted to put the ribbons someplace where they mean something."
After making the donation, Carlson said he was surprised when he received a letter of thanks from Sandy Groleau, exhibitor's manager for the fair.
"Your collection of ribbons is absolutely marvelous," the letter reads. "It is rare that we see ribbons dating back to the first Upper Peninsula State Fair held in 1928. Also I've never seen ribbons from the Northern State Fair dating back to the years prior to the creation of the Upper Peninsula State Fair. What a beautiful and amazing collection."
"It shocked me. It was beautiful," he said almost overcome with emotion. "I had tears in my eyes when I read it."
Groleau went on to say that the collection is currently on display in the fair office where visitors have commented on the ribbons, saying they are impressed with the dates on the ribbons and their condition.
"We are planning to have the collection encased in glass and showcased in the Fine Arts Building where all visitors to the fair can enjoy them," Groleau continued. "I hope you will stop by and see the delight and appreciation on the faces of the visitors."