After A Year Of Quiet, The Pigs, Cotton Candy, and Blue Ribbons Of The Fair Return
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 6, 2021
It’s August, and it’s not 2020, which means the Northwestern Michigan Fair and its pigs, lawn mower races, and cotton candy are back.
“We’re very excited,” says Rebecca Gill of Cotton Creek Farm, where she and her family raise alpacas. Rebecca and her husband Jason formed a new alpaca 4-H group this year called Farm and Fleece, which boasts 14 kids (more wanted to participate, but they ran out of alpacas). So this year their son Hunter and 13 other youngsters will be showing off the alpacas at the fair.
The alpacas were among the many things missing last year at The Fair That Wasn’t, along with all the other 4-H activities, the pancake breakfast, bingo, draft horse pulls, the veterans quilt raffle, midway rides, the Veterans Memorial and Ice Cream Social, the Michigan Monster Truck Shoot Out – and that’s just the first two days.
The fair is a tradition that has been around for more than a century. Records indicate some sort of a local fair in the area as far back as 1873. In October 1907 the Articles of Association were signed, signifying the official creation of the Grand Traverse Region Fair Association. The first annual fair ran September 29 through October 2, 1908; admission was 25 cents a day. The name was changed to the Northwestern Michigan Fair in 1924.
The original home of the fair was at what is now the Grand Traverse County Civic Center. In 1975 it moved to its current location on Blair Townhall Road south of Traverse City, following the purchase of the property from Consumers Power for $15,600.
And about that location: This will be the first year that fairgoers arriving from the north won’t be able to turn east onto Blair Townhall Road to get there -- because you can’t turn left into a one-way roundabout. The new roundabout is under construction at the intersection of M-37 and Blair Townhall Road, and Fair Secretary Carolyne Woodhams says she has been assured that it will be completed before the Fair opens.
Another difference since the last time the Fair hosted its live event is the loss of two prominent leaders directly connected with it. Mary Dennis, a board member for many years, and Ivan Arnold, who founded Arnold Amusements, both passed away since the fair last took place. “This year is dedicated to them. We are having tributes to both of them,” says Woodhams.
Dennis’s obituary suggested a memorial to the Fair for improvements to the museum. Woodhams notes the museum was one of Dennis’s passions; it includes photos of horse races and other events from past fairs, equipment used by farmers and at the fair, and the volunteers – including Woodhams – talk with visitors about the many exhibits there. She says upwards of 1,000 people visit the museum every year.
Susy White is the 4-H coordinator for the area. Like Gill, she says she is looking forward to the event’s return. “We’re really, really excited about the in-person experience this year,” she says. The largest youth development organization in Michigan, 4-H offers youngsters 5 to 19 opportunities to explore programs in a number of interest areas. There are the various animal programs of course, but also the arts, science and technology to clothing and textiles, and more.
The fair isn’t just for kids, of course. Bakers, quilters (such as the quilting group Rumpled Quilts Kin), auto and lawn mower racers – actually, maybe the fair is for kids of all ages.
The fact the fair never opened last year means the non-profit organization had practically no income. Woodhams says the organization makes sure it keeps enough of the profits from the year to make it through to the next fair, but “with no fair last year…like every other organization we were hurt. We hope to bounce back. So far everything looks good.”
This year the fair sought sponsors for many of the events, including the pancake breakfast that kicks off the proceedings on Sunday, Aug. 8. “We were able to get five sponsors” for the breakfast, says Woodhams. All proceeds will be going to Reining Liberty Ranch, which offers equine-based programs to serve veterans, their families and other at-risk individuals.
The Northwestern Michigan Fair runs Sunday, Aug. 8, through Saturday, Aug. 14. Admission to the fair and events varies.