Commentary: Farewell to the Michigan State Fair

Apr 11, 2012

Virtually nobody paid much attention, but the last faint hope that the Michigan State Fair would somehow be revived ended this week.

Two days ago, Governor Rick Snyder signed bills authorizing the state to give up ownership of the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. Those 163 acres would be returned, the governor’s office said, “to productive uses.“

Translated, that meant sold by the Michigan Land Bank for private development. What had been the longest-running state fair in the nation ended three years ago, when former Governor Jennifer Granholm insisted on defunding it.

Since then, the land has lain vacant, and has cost the state about a million dollars a year to maintain. No wonder Snyder sounded relieved to be getting it off the ledger. But I have to wonder if either governor would have been so eager to end the fair if they had been from an agricultural background.

The fair had been running since 1847, and had been held on the same site in Northwest Detroit for more than a century, usually just before Labor Day. Beyond doubt, its popularity had waned in recent decades. More than a million people a year attended the fair back in the 1960s.

That had fallen to a few hundred thousand. But one of them was almost always me, generally with some kids in tow.

Though some of the attractions were hokey, this was the only chance many city children had to see farm animals. You could watch chickens hatch and goats being born there, buy schmaltzy souvenirs, and it was an annual tradition to gape at the life size cow and calf made entirely of butter. After the fair closed for good, one anonymous attorney wrote me sarcastically that as a result of “insightful and bold decision-making we now have no claim on the longest-running state fair in the country, no annual event in Detroit around Labor Day that provided citizens with education and entertainment, and we send a message that agriculture ain‘t all that important here.”

Yet there was one snippet of good news. The Grant House is apparently going to be saved, thanks to patient behind-the-scenes efforts of state history buffs.  Ulysses S. Grant is the only future president ever to have lived in Detroit, back when he was an army officer. He used to race his horses up and down Jefferson, and lived in a comfortable Greek revival house.

The home was moved to the fairgrounds back in the 1950s, and furnished as it would have looked when Grant lived there. At some point, it has sparked a little interest in history for thousands.  Yet when the fair closed, I worried. Moving it had made the Grant house ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and I feared we might lose one more bit of our past.

But fortunately, I’m told the legislation specifically charges the state Department of Natural Resources with saving the home -- though just how is yet to be determined.

“This is wonderful news for Michigan!” Jack Dempsey told me, and he should know; he is the chair of the Michigan Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. So, that’s the good news.

But I just wish somebody had cared as much about the fair.