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Column: A Fairly Fun History of the Upper Peninsula State Fair

ESCANABA — This past week, I met with the Bay Sages group at the college. I was tasked with presenting information about the history of the U.P. State Fair and to report on the 2022 record-setting fair.

Thanks to information gathered by our resident historian, Ann Jousma Miller, and the Daily Press Archives, I was able to present the Fairly Fun History and share how the fair received as much support in its infancy as it does today.

In 1878 the first agricultural fair in the Upper Peninsula was held on Ogden Avenue facing Lake Michigan in the yard of the Tilden House. The Delta County road system hadn’t been developed yet but people traveled in wagons on two-track roads to view and support the harvest of early settlers.

The first “Celebration of Agriculture and Community”, which was also the theme for the 2022 U.P. State Fair, was a huge success. Since then, the fair has continued, grown, and is one of 86 fairs in the state and claims to be Michigan’s Only State Fair.

By 1900 the celebration of agriculture and community continued. Timber was harvested resulting in more land going into farming. Recognition for farmers and celebrating agriculture was a priority at the time.

In 1909, one of the largest two-day events was planned to include a big fair and farmers market picnic. The event lasted three days and took place in the 800 block of Ludington Street with live bands, a dance, exhibits, evening concerts, horse racing, baseball games, and more! The farmers market picnic celebrating agriculture was held and awards were given to horse entries, dairy cows, live deer, and turkeys.

The annual event continued to be successful and grew when an outreach committee was organized. Postcards were sent to former residents inviting them to come to the fair. The committee showed up at the railroad depots and boat landings to welcome guests to the fair. According to news stories, residents were asked to open their homes to travelers.

The enthusiasm and support for the fair continued and the Delta County Agricultural Society was established. Members, representing each township in Delta County, began planning the event for 1910. To pay for the event, they sold memberships for $1 per person and stock for $25. The original stock certificates are at the Delta County Historical Society.

By 1911, the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau was organized. Their responsibility was to promote the U.P. outside the area; much like today’s U.P. Economic Development Alliance and Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association. Both organizations exist today to promote the U.P. for travel and business development.

The Upper Peninsula Development Bureau first promoted agriculture recognizing that timber was cut and farmland was expanded. Where the timber was cut, the first thing to grow back around the stumps was clover. The keyword used by the development bureau to describe the U.P. was Cloverland. Some that adopted the moniker in their business name were the Cloverland Sheep Farm, Cloverland Electric, Cloverland Grain and Milling Company, and Cloverland Paper Company. The Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad donated money for brochures and other printed material. The Cloverland Magazine was published touting the advantage of farming in the U.P. It truly was another example of how the U.P celebrated agriculture and community.

In 1912, the “Big Fair” was held in the Fair Store in downtown Escanaba. Inside the store were displays of corn and beans – animals were exhibited in an empty lot behind the store. It was held there for several years and was very successful. Fair attendance broke all records that year with over 8,000 people celebrating agriculture and community.

The Delta County Agriculture Society established a ballot proposal to bond for $12,000 to purchase land for a permanent fairground. The proposal passed, the first land was purchased, and the beef barn was built. The fair was then known as the Northern Michigan Fair and was held on the property owned by the Agricultural Society.

A priority at the time was horse racing and a premier horse racetrack was built in 1916. It was so exceptional that 40 horses came from Wisconsin, lower Michigan, and Canada for the fair races.

An extraordinary fair was held in 1918 that included a wild west show, a merry-go-round, and a Ferris wheel, furnished by Parke Amusement out of Detroit. Imagine, there was no Mackinac Bridge at that time!

Throughout history, newspaper headlines reported when a fair had a record-setting year. In 1922 the Northern Michigan Fair stated that 12,000 attended the fair to break records. 100 years later in 2022, a new record was set with 103,000 guests passing through the gates.

So, the real question is, how did we become the U.P. State Fair?

Herbert Rushton from Escanaba was the chairman of the Delta County Agricultural Society and was instrumental in getting the racetrack built. He went on to become the state senator for this district. He knew that the State of Michigan funded a fair in Detroit at the time and asked the question, “Why can’t the state fund the fair in the Upper Peninsula?” He introduced legislation to transfer the land, buildings, and racetrack to the state. He became known as the Father of the U.P. State Fair.

A fair was not held in 1927 while the negotiations were going on to transfer the property to the state. Then, the biggest celebration of agriculture and community was held from September 17 – 22, 1928 with the first ever U.P. State Fair.

George E. Harvey was hired as the fair manager and started booking entertainment in January 1928. The U.P. State Fair management team starts booking entertainment about the same time during the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions Convention.

Governor Green attended the first fair and was greeted by 30,000 attendees on Governor’s Day. Governor’s Day is now called Honored Citizens Day and the U.P. State Fair Authority and Chamber members cosponsor the popular Governor’s Luncheon each year.

After the first U.P. State Fair was held, the Daily Press headlines read, Foundation laid for future growth. A 95-year-old prediction that came true, thanks to the dedication of folks who are determined to continue the important celebration of agriculture and community.

— — —

Vickie Micheau is the executive director of the Delta County Chamber of Commerce

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