In Hillsdale, it’s the people, it’s tradition, it’s the fair.
Flooded with community members, college students, and out-of-town visitors, the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds opened Sunday for the 168th county fair.
Named “The Most Popular Fair on Earth,” the fair brings together generations of traditions for a week of animal shows, grandstand performances, and, of course, the rides and food.
Considered as one of their own traditions, the Bowman family has been showing cattle for over 85 years. Andrea Bowman, head of the Hillsdale County Dairy Leaders, said her daughter, Ellie, is the fourth generation in her family to be showing cows at the fair. Ellie Bowman, who is now eight, has been showing cows since she was three years old.
4‑H Club has been an integral part of the Bowman’s lives, so much so that the family lends their cows to be shown by other children involved with 4‑H Club, so that they may have an opportunity to participate with an animal as well, Andrea Bowman said.
Andrea Bowman said they are proud of this tradition, and the character which it instills in the kids. 4‑H is an agriculturally focused organization that focuses on citizenship, healthy living, science, engineering, and technology programs.
Harold Finegan, the superintendent of the poultry and rabbit barn, has been a lifelong fairgoer. “This is the biggest bunch we’ve had in four years,” Finegan said, speaking about the 180 rabbits, 60 pigeons, and dozens of chickens occupying the barn.
It’s mostly children who bring in the animals, Finegan said. “One child brought in 35 rabbits this year.”
Finegan grew up in Hillsdale, and although he moved to Adrian, he still comes to volunteer at the fair every year. He even made each of the steel animal crates in the barn himself.
Janell Morse, assistant superintendent of the livestock birthing tent, said that she’s been going to the fair since she was “being pushed around in a stroller.” Her uncle, David Town, superintendent of the birthing tent, started the tent five years ago, she said.
Morse is an OB-GYN assistant and she grew up on a farm, so helping both people and animals enter the world comes “naturally” she said. Morse said she enjoys seeing the kids learning from the animals in the barn and then relating it to humans. The pregnant cows are rotated out after giving birth each day, so that calves can be born in the fair throughout the week.
For Keith Stickley, founder of the Great American Sideshow Company, tradition at the county fair comes from more than just the livestock. As one of the last two circus sideshows left in the nation, Stickley is working hard to preserve the carnival tradition that used to be popular at so many county fairs.
“Hillsdale is big about keeping history and tradition alive,” Stickley said.
The fair board subsidized admission for the “Palace of Illusions” show this year to encourage attendance and to give each fairgoer a chance to experience the wonder.
The first Hillsdale County Fair was held in 1851, outside of the courthouse at the time.
Fair Historian Cinda Walton dressed in the attire of a woman of the late 1800’s, said that few things have changed in the 168 years that the fair has been around.
Electricity, for example, is a great asset to the grounds, and a necessary one at that.
There are, however, the ever-returning problems of parking and navigating around the trees.
“One thing that hasn’t changed, and we don’t want to change, is that it’s a fair, and not a carnival,” Walton said. “It’s a homecoming.”
The fair will continue until Saturday. Tickets can be purchased at the gate: $5 for adults, $1 for children ages 10 – 14. Senior citizens can receive a $3 discount on Friday for Senior Citizens’ Day.
— Josephine von Dohlen contributed to this report