Wherever popularity goes, parking problems follow. L. W. Meeks recounted in a local newspaper in 1950 his first visit to the Hillsdale County Fair in 1897. After a seven-mile wagon ride, almost all of the hitching space for the horses were full. Afterall, he was at “The Most Popular Fair on Earth.”
Although the Hillsdale County Fair slogan is a point of pride for many county residents, each will probably provide a different reason behind the nickname, said Cinda Walton, the fair’s historian. The nickname actually comes from a post-Civil War attendance boom and the railroad.
Rosemary Easler, a volunteer for the Mitchell Research Center, said although she did not know how the slogan came to be, in the fair’s earlier days, people would flood the fairgrounds, coming by train and horse and buggies.
In particular, the fair’s annual “Hillsdale County homecoming” would attract the community and guests from all over for the day, as families set up picnics and enjoyed the festivities.
“Everybody in the area knew about it,” Easler said. “It was the biggest event of the year.”
Hillsdale’s county fair, the 11th oldest in Michigan, was traditionally one of the last of the season, as well, drawing farmers at the end of the harvest, said Bonnie McCosh, also a volunteer at the research center.
Perhaps it got the name because people enjoy Hillsdale’s fair more than any other, as Wayne Nichols, the former secretary for the agricultural society, in 1974 suggested to the Chronicle, the magazine of the Historical Society of Michigan.
Other people suggested that given Hillsdale’s small population, fair attendees make up a major percentage of the county’s population. Attendance in 2016 actually surpassed the county population of 46,000, numbering about 70,000 guests.
The nickname dates to the late 1860s, appearing after several slow years at the fair.
For the first time in the fair’s 10 years, attendance declined in 1860, when the Hillsdale County Agricultural Society purchased permanent fairgrounds in the city of Hillsdale. Previously, the fair had alternated between Hillsdale and Jonesville.
Bitter for missing out, many Jonesville residents decided not to attend the fair, and attendance slumped.
Over the next several years, even fewer people attended the fair, as many men enlisted in the military during the Civil War. In 1864, fair receipts totaled $900, which scarcely paid the expenses, according to an old newspaper clip.
The fair had its best year yet in 1865, the year the war ended. It took in $1,550 from tickets and made a profit of $350, which helped to build a race track and fence the grounds. A year later, fair receipts totaled $3,300, $900 more than expenses.
Surplus funds went to construct buildings that served meals to overnight visitors and offered more attractions, boosting attendance even more.
At this time, the tagline was coined. The oldest written evidence of the slogan is on posters in train stations that advertised roundtrip tickets to the “most popular fair on earth” in Hillsdale County, according to Mark Williams, the fair’s manager.
“There were thousands of people who came by train to the fair,” Walton said. “That title caught on.”
During its peak, 22 trains full of passengers arrived in Hillsdale each day, according to “The History of the Hillsdale County Fair: 1850 – 2000 One Hundred Fifty Year of the Fair.” They came from as far as Elkhart and Fort Wayne in Indiana, Lansing and Ypsilanti in Michigan, and Toledo in Ohio.
The fair’s popularity continued to rise, and its slogan earned a sense of permanence when painted on the grandstand in the 1930s.
Although the Hillsdale County Fair’s attendance may not rival that of San Diego County, the largest fair in 2016 with 1.6 million visitors, it remains the “most popular fair on earth” in the hearts of Hillsdale County residents.
“I was a farm kid, so it was pretty rare you got to go anywhere,” Easler said. “It’s always been, personally, the highlight of the year.”