Agricultural fairs have been a living part of the economic and social structure of America since colonial times. They combine the best aspects of two of Michigan’s most vital industries – agriculture and tourism. With less than 3% (closer to 2%) of the United States population directly involved in agriculture, there is a great need to educate people about where their food comes from; how it is raised and produced. Fairs perform this function well.
Elkanah Watson, a New England patriot and farmer, earned the title, “Father of US agricultural fairs” by producing (the first) a small exhibit of sheep under an old elm tree in the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The year was 1807. He believed that the fine textured fleece of the exhibited sheep, when manufactured into cloth, would successfully compete with the best wool imported from England. He wrote, “Many farmers, and even women, were excited by curiosity to attend this first novel and humble exhibition.”
In 1810 Watson staged a larger and more ambitious project, a Berkshire cattle show. The event was successful beyond all his expectations; entries included 386 sheep, 109 oxen, 9 cows, 7 folds, 3 heifers, 2 calves and 1 boar.
Early American fairs in both Canada and the US shifted quietly, but decisively away from the European festival model into the systematic development of agriculture and animal husbandry while offering education, local resource and local industry promotion and entertainment. Competition became the cornerstone of fair programming; youth development provided a social theme.
The Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions was organized in 1885.
Many of the Michigan Agricultural fairs are organized and operate under the provisions of Act 80 of 1855. Act 80 provides that:
“Any ten or more persons, inhabitants of this state, who shall desire to form an agricultural or horticultural society, in any county, township, city or village, or in any two or more of them, being contiguous in this state may make, sign and acknowledge articles of association.”
There are currently 7 of Michigan Fairs that are organized and operate under Act 11 of 1929 as County-owned Fairgrounds.
The Michigan State Fair was the oldest state fair in the United States, beginning in 1849 and was located for over 100 years on the same spot at 8 Mile Road and Woodward Ave in Detroit Michigan.
The nineteenth century closed with almost every state and province having one or more agricultural fair or exhibition.
Today, over 3,200 fairs are held in North America each year. In Michigan, we have 86 county fairs. They provide industrial exhibits, demonstrations and competition aimed at the advancement of livestock, horticulture and agriculture with special emphasis placed on educational activities such as 4-H, FFA and similar youth development programs. While enjoying these high-minded pursuits, fair visitors are also able to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the richness and variety of what the world has to offer.