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The Hillsdale County Fair became “The Most Popular Fair on Earth” Col­legian | Kaylee McGhee

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.”

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Breana Noble
Breana Noble is The Collegian's Editor-in-Chief. She is a born and raised Michigander and studies politics and journalism. This summer, Breana interned in New York City at TheStreet, a business and finance news website. She has previously worked for The Detroit News, The American Spectator, and Newsmax Media. She eventually hopes to pursue a career in investigative journalism. email: bnoble1@hillsdale.edu | twitter: @RightandNoble