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160 years and going strong: The Jackson County (MI) Fair

8/21/2013

By Linda McNatt

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The weather smiled on this 160-year-old fair in Jackson, Michigan the week of Aug. 4 through Aug. 10, when 220,000 people walked through the gates over the seven-day run of the fair.

"Our attendance was way up over last year," said fair operations manager Denise Owens. "It was a wonderful year for the concessionaires. They said they had the best year they've had in the last 19 years."

Despite a fairly depressed economy in this city 40 miles west of Ann Arbor and 35 miles south of Lansing in South Central Michigan, the people welcomed the annual fair and supported it in a tremendous way, said Owens.

"We did everything we could to make it affordable to the people", she said. "Everything from partnering with the midway people to offer ride specials to offering discounts at the gate".

The midway, owned and operated by North American Midway Entertainment - or NAME - had 22 rides and at least 15 games. The midway offered four "pay one price" days, and that was successful, said Owens. They also had a $1 ride and a $2 ride day. Rides like the Ring of Fire, Tilt a Whirl and the Freak Out were kept busy.
The midway was spread across a large portion of the 44-acre tract the fair operates on each year.

"We are on a land-locked 44 acres," she said. "It's right in the middle of the city. We brought all of the livestock animals in for the fair."

The livestock events were among the most popular. Members of 4-H and Future Farmers of America exhibited and sold their animals at the events. One exhibiter sold his 1,193-pound steer for $2.50 a pound. Another sold a 1,222 steer for $4.25 a pound. Both high school students and FFA members said they would use the money they made to help pay for college tuition.

"My grandchildren showed their swine," said Sue Reed, in charge of the vegetables and greens in the agriculture exhibits. "It's been a great fair. Everybody has had a wonderful time.

One of the most popular exhibits was the birthing barn, where baby animals were actually born as the fair was going on.

"You couldn't keep the kids out of there," said Owens. "They'd run through the gates and straight to the birthing bard to see what was new. We had baby chicks hatching out all the time, baby pigs, sheep, even a few calves. It was a happy place."

The birthing barn, however, did draw a little controversy to the fair. The barn was too close to the stage where Bruno Blaszkak's Tiger Show was to appear. Fair officials had to hoist a very large blue tarp between the barn and the stage, so the tigers couldn't get a whiff of or see the baby animals.

Owens said it was the first time that the tiger show, featuring Bengal, Siberian and Sumatran tigers, had appeared at the Jackson County Fair, and the act was extremely popular.

Six tigers filled the cage. The animals jumped through hoops, walked on double tightropes, jumped from perch to perch and danced and played in the center of the cage, she said.

The Jackson County Fair is the third largest in the state, said Owens, and temperatures in the 70s couldn't have been better to give fair-goers an opportunity to come out and enjoy the food and fun, said Owens.

It rained only one day during the fair, delaying for a short time the start of the rodeo. The Lost Nations rodeo entertained with stunt riders and bull riders. It was the first time there was a rodeo at the fair since 2009, and the audience packed the stockyard and rodeo area.

More than 1,000 people attended the demolition derby and enduro race, another popular feature of the fair. And the Monster trucks came from everywhere - Predator, Bars Leak, Prowler, Ballistic and Rap Attack were on hand at the show.

Nationally-known entertainment included the popular The Band Perry, a popular pop/country trio that kicked off the fair on Aug. 4. General admission for the group was $32, and reserved seats were $49. The Band Perry released its first album in October 2010, and the album went platinum a year later.

The band performed its number one smash hit, "If I Die Young" - "Send Me Away With the Words of a Love Song."

The following night, on August 5, Godsmack, with special guest Pop Evil, a heavy metal and hard rock band, performed to screams and cheers. The band has had three number one albums and 15 songs on the top 10.

Godsmack wasn't easily accepted at the family entertainment show at first, Owens said, but it went fine.

"We had some very happy ticket holders," she said.

The fair tried to feature two free entertainment shows a day. Jim Hoke, known from his appearances on national television shows like "Oprah," was there to demonstrate his hypnosis talents.  There was also an Elvis impersonator and a karaoke contest.

Discount days were also offered for seniors and veterans.

There was a record number of entries for the pie baking contest. Each contestant was asked to bake two pies. One was judged, and the other auctioned off after the contest ended.

One local family made a special, $1,000 contribution to the fair in honor of their mother, Maxine Taber, who died at the age of 84 on June 10, 2012. Taber won 373 baking contest ribbons in her lifetime. Her family also donated a plaque in the woman's honor.

The Jackson County Fair has a reputation for always having the largest amount of food vendors among Michigan's three large fairs, said Owens, and this year was no different.

There were 30-plus food vendors at this year's fair, with everything from frogs legs to corn dogs to steak hoagies and elephant ears.

"People can't get enough corn dogs at a fair, and elephant ears are always popular," Owens said. "About the only place you can get an elephant ear anymore is a fair."

There was also just about anything you'd ever want deep fried: Oreos, Snickers, Milky Ways, Twix and Twinkies. A sampler basket of fried items cost $7.

There was also a popular fried bologna sandwich, with tomato, lettuce and onion, that sold for $5.50. People were also lined up at the Wisconsin Cheese stand.

There was a popular local Mexican restaurant, with 38 years of experience, that opened a booth at the fair.

"People loved it," said Owens.

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