Our State Fair is a (New) State Fair: A vision that began in 1849 is restored in 2012 as The Great Lakes State Fair

Back in 1849, the Michigan State Agricultural Society decided that New York shouldn’t be the only state to have a statewide agricultural fair. They set up shop in Detroit for the first year, and then meandered around the Lower Peninsula, wherever there were adequate rail lines and good roads for all Michiganders to come to celebrate the then-biggest industry in the state.

Returning to a permanent home in Detroit, the fair was a privately financed endeavor until 1921 when the state took over its operation. That lasted until 2009 when attendance at the second-oldest state fair in the country had dropped from a high of 1.2 million to slightly more than 200,000 -“ and the state ended its funding, and the fair.

On Friday, Aug. 31, and running through Monday, Sept. 3, the vision resumes.

Now called the Great Lakes State Fair, its location at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi still offers good road connections for all Michiganders to celebrate the now-second-largest industry in the state -“ agriculture -“ along with many of the traditional trappings of the previous fair. There’ll be prize-worthy farm animals, family-oriented food and entertainment, a collection of midway rides and games -“ and the Shrine Circus -“ all from Michigan sources.

The new venue for Michigan’s State Fair will be the Suburban Collection Showplace.

Kent Roberts is vice president of the board of the Great Lakes State Fair. All of the officers of the nonprofit fair volunteer their time and in his “real” job Roberts helps communities cooperate with each other -“ a skill that’s been valuable in putting together the new Fair on relatively short notice.

“The agricultural community is our second biggest industry but we lost the ability to showcase that industry when the old fair closed a couple of years ago. A number of people wanted to reinvent the fair as a way of demonstrating what a 21st century state fair might look like. That became the vision and the drive to make the Great Lakes State Fair possible,” Roberts explains.

With no state funding, the fair is being financed entirely by “the private sector, with our sponsors and the fair-goers. By setting ourselves up as a nonprofit we’re able to receive different types of resources as this thing evolves.”

Evolution is something Roberts wants to emphasize. The vision the original founders had back in 1849 took several years to grow into a true statewide exposition that became the model for 19th century fairs across the country to follow. The Great Lakes State Fair aims to be the model for the 21st century. “We’re putting it together initially so that it’s pretty lean. We’re running it for four days, not the 12 that it was in the past. We’re putting out a good product that people will want to reinvest in and then grow it for the future.”

Will the state be involved at all? “No,” replies Roberts. “But we have a lot of Michigan politicians who support us. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow will be serving as our Grand Marshall.”

Agriculture is Michigan’s second biggest industry.

Stabenow, as chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has been crisscrossing the state to talk with a variety of Michigan farm groups about their concerns. She also stressed the importance of getting the House to approve the Farm Bill that the Senate just passed.

When asked about her role in the new State Fair, Stabenow replied, “It is an honor to be part of the new Great Lakes State Fair to showcase Michigan-made products and to highlight how agriculture continues to be a bright spot for Michigan’s economy.”

Roberts returns to his comment that he hopes the Great Lakes State Fair will be a 21st century model. “A lot of us have pictures in our minds of fairs past with barns and a midway and that type of thing. At the Suburban Collection Showplace a lot of our activities will be indoors. It’s kind of blending of a lot of different ideas -“ Pure Michigan, Made in Michigan, the animals inside, tents outside where we have an entertainment venue and some Michigan craft beers.”

As travelers on I-96 drive by they’ll be able to see the rides on the midway, which will parallel the expressway.

“We’re able to leverage and partner our resources to put together an event that is definitely family oriented entertainment,” says Roberts proudly.

One of those resources is the Detroit Shrine Circus.

Shrine Circus elephants.

Craig Stigleman is business manager for the Detroit Shrine and owner of Aggressive Marine, a boat sales, service and storage company in Oakland County’s Commerce Township. He says that putting the circus together with relatively short notice was a challenge.

“The Fair is Labor Day weekend and a lot of things were booked. The actual owner of our circus got on the phone and started pulling together acts from different circuses that he and his family own around the country and in Canada. We did the same thing for the midway, which is our rides and entertainment. We started piecing things together back in March.”

There’ll be many of the attractions you expect to find at the Shrine Circus. “It was important to me,” says Stigleman, “that we didn’t put together a third-rate circus. We wanted a first-rate circus, because this was going to be the State Fair and we’re hoping that it will grow to become what it used to be for Michigan. That was our main goal.”

“So, there’ll be elephants, tigers, high-wire trapeze acts, the motorcycle ball of death -“ everything is Class A. The Shrine Clowns will be there, our fife and bugle corps, the little cars with the Keystone Cops as well as the Veterans Unit, which will be the flag bearers at the head of the parade. We’ve now restored an original WWII jeep so that will be our lead parade vehicle. There are 22 of these units, which make up every Shrine event.”

Detroit’s Shriners play an important role in the health of the community. There are 4,000 of them in the local Shrine and they support three of the 18 children’s hospitals operated by the Shriners nationwide. Each week the local volunteers utilize a fleet that includes Dodge Sprinter vans and motor homes to transport children who need special care to hospitals in Chicago, Cincinnati and Erie, Pa., for treatment.

“It costs $2 million a day to run our hospitals,” Stigleman explains, “but none of that money goes to the Shriners themselves. We’re an all-volunteer organization from our head organization in Tampa to the guys who’ll be here working from about 9 in the morning to 11 at night. The guy who runs the whole Shrine organization not only doesn’t get a salary but pays $250,000 a year out of his own pocket. The guys who are into the Shrine are in it for the right reasons.” A reason that, despite its name of the Moslem Shrine Temple, is not religious. “Back in the late 1800s when the Shriners were formed,” Stigleman reminds us, “the Middle East was a mysterious place with deserts, camels and sheiks. It was just a bunch of rich guys who wanted to give away money and have fun.” While not all of them are rich these days, the Shriners still give a lot of money to help kids get better, have a lot of fun and still wear those red fezzes.

The Shriners’ portion of the fair’s revenue goes to help pay for their expenses in transporting sick kids.

L-R: Kent Roberts, Vice Chairperson for the Great Lakes State Fair, Bob Gatt, Mayor of Novi, James Gotts, Shriners, Blair Bowman, Owner of Suburban Collection Showplace, Craig Stigleman, Shriners.

“The Circus is a tremendous addition to the event,” says Roberts.

Other features of the new fair are the livestock and some of the “community arts” that were the hallmarks of the old state fair. Jackie Scramlin is the agricultural director of the new fair. She says that there will be “a number of livestock exhibitors and crafters at the fair. But, I try to caution people, this is our first year. We’ll have beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, rabbits and draft horses. For community arts we have knitting, crocheting, there’ll be jellies and jams. There’ll be spinners and weavers as well.

“A lot of people from the old state fair are coming back because they want it to happen.”

Scramlin raises and shows Southdown sheep (the ones with the pale grey faces) and returned recently from the Indiana State Fair where she was the premier sheep exhibitor. Another Michigan sheep farmer was the premier at the Illinois State Fair the same day and a third won the same award in Wisconsin, so the competition at the Great Lakes State Fair promises to be intense.

The midway will be visible all Labor Day weekend to drivers on I-96.

Once again the truncated development time for the Great Lakes State Fair has limited some of the traditional agricultural attractions. There’ll be no giant watermelon contest, for instance, because as Scramlin points out, “you would have to planted those plants in March.” The same goes for the Miracle of Life exhibit. “It takes nine months and 10 days for a cow, it takes five months for sheep -“ so, no,” Scramlin laughs. “It’s not that we don’t want to do them, it’s just that Mother Nature doesn’t always want to cooperate.”

“We are going to try to revive as many traditional things as possible. So, in addition to the livestock and the community arts folks, we’ll have people doing demonstrations with honeybees and beeswax, and we will have the bottomless glass of chocolate milk. So, this is a start.”

Pizza is just one of the typical “fair foods” that will be at the Great Lakes State Fair.

Scramlin also points out that the all-inclusive pricing for the new Great Lakes State Fair is a good deal. Tickets in advance for adults and children over 12 are $25; with children 2 to 12 the cost is $20. That covers all of the rides, the Shrine Circus performances and the rest of the fair. Advance prices for just the exhibits are $6 for adults and $5 for kids between 2 and 12.

Roberts is careful not to raise expectations too high -“ the 2012 Great Lakes State Fair is not the Michigan State Fair of old -“ at least this year. “We’re not trying to replicate what was, but to create a 21st century version that’s viable in today’s economy. It’s the right thing to do -“ and it’s also the smart thing to do. You’ve got to start somewhere,” he says. “You’ve got to put forth a product, and we really think this product has value and that people will really enjoy themselves.”

Full details are available at www.GreatLakesStateFair.org.