Traverse City News and Events

No Day At the Fair, But Even Livestock Can Pivot

By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 8, 2020

This weekend, hundreds of people - and animals - were supposed to be preparing for their annual big Northwestern Michigan Fair experience. But unlike any time in its long history, the venerable fair has been put on hold - no pigs, chickens, or rabbits. No animal auctions, lawnmower races, pies, or prizewinners. Patrons will have to wait until August 8, 2021 to enjoy cotton candy, carnival rides, and camaraderie. But thanks to some quick thinking, many area youth will still be rewarded for their hard work.

Carolyne Woodhams, secretary of the fair board, says regulations from both the state and the county made it impossible to hold the fair this year. “It was a hard decision. It’s a hard thing for the kids,” she says.

The board knew early on things would be different. MSU Extension announced that all face-to-face 4-H youth events and programs would be cancelled until at least September. That meant 4-H participants like Kadin Crosley wouldn’t get a chance to show off their animals. “I had a market heifer this year,” he says. And even though the fair was cancelled, the animals still need to be taken care of. “It takes time, a couple hours a day,” he says.

Fortunately, an alternative was developed. The livestock council stepped in to provide an online auction, which will be held today (Saturday) through Monday, with a resale auction held Wednesday. “The kids sent video. Instead of (purchase) per pound, it was per animal. So they’ll still get some money,” says Woodhams.

“I’m delivering buyer letters just like I would have. Instead of walking in a ring, I had people come and take pictures and did a video,” says Crosley.

His mother, Barb Crosley, is an officer of the Northwest Michigan Livestock Council. She says this year’s virtual show attracted about half the participants it would have in a normal year. “We lost about half the swine and a lot of the small animals,” she says, noting that means most of the younger students. “The younger ones tend to participate in rabbits and poultry.”

Renée Hobbins of Maple City raises llamas and is the assistant species chair for llamas and alpacas. She says the 60- to 90-second videos are adjudicated by a judge watching a screen. He then selects finalists and places them and explains why. “We really miss the actual (fair), the high school seniors especially,” she says.

Woodhams says between 700 and 800 animals would have been on site at the fairgrounds on Blair Townhall Road south of Traverse City, along with 300-plus campers. “When it starts, it’s all in. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Ironically, the shuttering of so much of the economy would have made it easier for those who run the fair to do so. “All of us on the fair board have other jobs. With the pandemic we actually had more time,” says Woodhams ruefully.

The fair in its official state debuted in 1908, though there are indications of a fair in the area dating back at least to 1873. Originally known as the Grand Traverse Region Fair, it officially changed its name in 1924. It took place at what is now the Civic Center, moving to its current location in 1975 following purchase of the grounds on Blair Townhall Road from Consumers Power for $15,600.

It’s not just kids who are missing out on the fun. Terise Gavar is a longtime participant in a number of areas. She’s entered her pies, antiques, and arts and crafts into the competitions and was named the Homemaker of the Year in 2018. “I’m a quilter. I belong to a quilting guild,” she says, a proud member of the Rumpled Quilts Kin guild.

Though she says another entrant holds a virtual monopoly on the cherry pie competition, Gavar keeps trying to perfect her recipe and would have entered the competitions again this year. “I would have been in it. I’m very much missing it. This year is so surreal."

She’s not the only one in her family who is missing the fair. “I have grandchildren who have been in it for several years,” says Gavar.

Rebecca Gill says a number of students show the alpacas she raises at Cotton Creek Farms in Thompsonville. “COVID shifted things. We brought in animals to have for 4-H and to sell to other families,” she says. Cotton Creek Farms currently has 48 alpacas with six babies on their way; they also have a dozen chickens and four Royal Palm turkeys.

Gill’s biggest regret is the 4-H kids who aren’t able to participate. Her son Hunter is one of them. “He’s missing out on showmanship. He’s not going to get that feedback,” she says. “Not getting to bring in kids is the biggest letdown.”

Not to mention the notoriety their farm and alpacas won’t be getting this year.“This year we were advertisers in the show program. We’d get more exposure for the farm,” she says.

While it’s still early – the fair website is counting down to next year by the day, hour, minute, and second – the hope is that next year it’s back to normal, kids, animals, events, even the Gibby’s fries.

“I hope we bounce back. It’s such a big part of people’s lives,” says Barb Crosley. “If next year is still virtual, I think the program will suffer.”

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