In an unprecedented move, the Hillsdale County Fair Board voted to cancel this fall’s fair, due to COVID-19, leaving many youth organizations, businesses, and community members devastated.
Since 1851, the fair has been Hillsdale’s pride and joy. Residents of Hillsdale County, students of Hillsdale College, and many out-of-town guests look forward to the annual event.
Even though the community will miss the festivities, Fair Manager Lori Hull said she had little control over the situation.
“Canceling the fair is not what we wanted to do, but what we had to do,” Hull said. “There was not a lot of choice in the matter.”
With the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered that to proceed with an event the size of the fair, the county must reach Phase 6 of re-opening. This includes the development of an effective vaccine, or no new cases of the virus for at least 30 days. With the nearly impossible alternative of limiting the fair to just 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, the fair committee was forced to cast a difficult vote.
Despite the apparent devastating effects of canceling the fair, there was no other option.
“All 100 members of the fair committee voted unanimously to cancel the event,” Hull said.
Hillsdale County residents said they feel the void of a fall without a fair.
Marriah Castillo, who grew up in Hillsdale and has attended the fair her entire life, said it is “disheartening we will not be having it.”
She said she views the fair as “an economic engine in small communities, giving businesses and farms the opportunities to advertise, connect, and network with the community.”
Besides the impact on community members, members of youth development groups are losing the main event they’ve been preparing for all year. Hull said Hillsdale County 4‑H usually has about 400 members who participate in the fair with exhibits that include sewing, cooking, livestock, crafts, photography, and more.
The county fair is a lucrative event that is essential in the upbringing of small-town youth. Castillo said participating in 4‑H teaches life skills such as “communication, leadership, responsibility, and sportsmanship.”
Castillo participated in 4‑H for years in the areas of horticulture, canned goods, and photography. She stressed the importance of 4‑H in small farming communities.
“Fairs give these kids an opportunity to show off what they’ve been working on all year long,” Castillo said.
Hull said that to make up for the loss of an in-person fair this year, there will be a virtual showcase to recognize 4‑H participants’ hard work.
In an effort to recognize 4‑H participants, Matthew Shane, the Michigan State University Extension District 12 Director, said there are some alternatives to an in-person county fair.
“The Hillsdale County 4‑H committees have decided not to offer a virtual auction format for youth, but rather encouraged youth to privately market their projects,” Shane said.
The Michigan State Fair LLC is putting on a state-wide showcase that several youth from Hillsdale have chosen to participate in. Shane is hopeful that this still gives youth participants a chance to “further develop their skills for future projects.”
Businesses at the fair such as car dealerships, concession stands, and private sellers bring an estimated $40,000in revenue to the fair annually, Hull said.
Hull predicts that more than 200 vendors will feel the repercussions of the fair closure.
An article published by the Hillsdale Historical Society notes that the first recorded Hillsdale County Fair took place on Oct.15, 1851.
The local newspaper reported the event to be “beyond expectation for the first agricultural fair in Hillsdale County.” The fair has brought in thousands ever since.
According to the Hillsdale County Historical Society, the county fair was nearly forfeited in 1861 due to the fair’s financial resources going toward the Civil War.
The legacy of the Hillsdale County Fair has been well revered for over a century. Even though the fair is canceled this year, Hull and her committee have high hopes for an even better return.