When most people think of the Hillsdale County Fair, they might think of the mouth-watering fried food, the many farm animals, or the unforgettable rides. Nevertheless, there is another attraction that should not be overlooked.
Atop a small hill amidst a parade of tractors, there sits a small white house that captures life as it was in the past. It’s the Hillsdale County Historical Society Museum.
Both the museum and its building have a long history of being at the fair. The museum has been around for more than 100 years and has been in its current residence since around the 1960s. Before that, the building acted as a dining hall and an office for the fair board, and earlier still, it was the groundskeeper’s home.
Inside the museum, knowledgeable and gracious hosts informed guests about Hillsdale’s past. One such host was Jean Letherer, who has worked off and on with the Hillsdale Historical Society for around 40 years.
As of Sept. 27, she said around 400 people had been in the museum and signed the logbook throughout the week.
One of the things she mentioned about the museum is how it is always changing. Each year, new artifacts make their appearance.
“I find it interesting to see what is new each year,” Letherer said.
This year, two of the major additions included an oarsman exhibit and “A Farm Wife’s Work” exhibit, along with displays on “Historical Hillsdale” and “The Military.”
The oarsmen display featured an original oar, along with various ribbons from competitions.
The oarsmen, an amateur local rowing team who competed internationally in 1879, was a four-man team, led by Captain Clarence Terwillinger. Their success took the team all the way to the Thames River in England, where they were barely defeated due to the coxswain’s seat collapsing during the race.
“A Farm Wife’s Work” exhibit focused on past and present fair preparation and showcased various canning materials and other items that would be used by wives to prepare for the fair, even ones from 2019.
Museum worker and historical society member Brad Ziegel mentioned that the “Art Smith Story” was his favorite display.
Art Smith and his fiancee eloped by plane in 1912, becoming the first recorded couple to do so. They crash-landed in a field near Hillsdale College and were married that night at the Smith Hotel in downtown Hillsdale, where Jilly Beans is today.
The display featured a model of the plane that Art flew. “I really like the story behind it,” Ziegel said.
Other interesting displays include Chief Baw Beese’s chair, where the native tribal leader once sat on during his visits to a local man’s house.
This is probably the oldest artifact in the entire museum, according to Jean Letherer, probably dating back to the early 1800s.
Guests enjoyed and appreciated other exhibits. Michelle Bowen, a Michigan native now living in New York, said the kitchen display and the various maps from the “Historical Hillsdale” display were her favorites.
The kitchen, which is meant to reflect a kitchen from the 1920s, includes an icebox, a washing machine, churns, a wood stove, and other intriguing items.
The “Historical Hillsdale” display, on the other hand, had an assortment of pictures and other records of the town.
“We were trying to find the house I grew up in on one of the older maps,” Bowen said.
The Hillsdale Historical Society museum might look like any other little white house on a hill, but inside it is filled with interesting historical items found nowhere else.