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Agricultural Fairs in America: Tradition, Education & Celebration (book)

Julie A. Avery, editor

Published by the MSU Museum on behalf of the FairTime Project a collaboration of Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Michigan State University Museum.

To order: call (517) 432-3358 -- $31.50 (include tax and shipping)


Table of Contents


Forward - Peter McPherson

President of MSU & child of dairy farm family with much youthful experiences with fairs.

Section 1 - The Essence

"Watching for the Ferris Wheel"
by Drake Hokason and Carol Kratz

"What is American about America's Fairs"
by Julie A. Avery


Section 2 - The Collection

"A Window in Time: The Poster Art Collection of The Fair Publishing House, Inc."
by Julie A. Avery

The Collection -- [16 4-color plates - illustrations from the collection]

"Jay Ford Laning (1853 – 1941): The Promotion of Agricultural Fairs"
by Julie A. Avery


Section 3 - Arts, Innovation & Agriculture

"The Role of Agricultural Fairs in Agricultural Innovation"
by Robert von Bernuth

"Early County Fairs: Community Arts Agencies of their Time:
by Julie A. Avery

"Arts and Fairs at the Millennium: The California Experience"
California Arts and Fairs Partnerships
by Seven Case Studies

"Setting the Stage for Change"
by Mariam Ayub


Section 4 - Small Town to Metropolis

"See you at the Fair"
by Fred Howes

"Fairs and Their Changing Communities"
by Sharon Jensen


Section 5 - America's Fairs: Educating Community

"County Fair – Community Event"
by Marilyn Thelen and Shannon Fisher

"Entertainment and Trends at Fairs"
by Carol Carlson

"Youth, Fairs and Experiential Learning"
by Dr. Virginia Gobeli


Section 6 - Bibliography

by Judy Dow


About the Authors



Section 1 - The Essence
Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz have shared pieces of prize-winning pies, a gondola on The Big Wheel, and the front seats of both their truck and Cessna Skyhawk and called it research. They have flown "low and slow" the length and breadth of the United States doing field work for their forthcoming book Pure-Bred and Home-Grown: America's County Fairs. In "Watching for the Ferris Wheel", they distill the essence of the American county fair and define regional differences in fairs across the country. By identifying the truths of the fair experience, they transcend characteristics and components to recognize the individual human experience and values -- the spiritual heart of America's traditional fairs.

In "What is American about America's Fairs," cultural historian Julie A. Avery examines the unique origin of America's fairs as a mechanism for educating citizens to improve agriculture and enhance the nation's self-sufficiency. Avery documents the elements that came together to create agricultural societies and redefine agricultural fairs in America.

Section 2 - The Collection of The Fair Publishing House, Inc.
While researching Michigan's early county fair experience, Michigan State University Museum Assistant Curator Julie A. Avery came across a colorful 1880s Indiana fair "specimen" poster at a fairgrounds antique show. The next week the offer of a free pass to a fair delivered much more than a fun-filled visit; the very same company had printed it!

Avery tracked down the company to Norwalk, Ohio and discovered a privately owned family corporation in business since 1880 and focused on the promotion of agricultural fairs throughout North America. She also helped to rediscover a collection of illustration art showcasing fair scenes, livestock, horseracing, period fashion, fair-ground exhibition architecture, and the introduction of entertainment and the carnival. The collection, created between 1880 and 1920, along with other graphic representations and company records, provides a unique window in time to America's agricultural and fair history.

Jay Ford Laning, founder of The Fair Publishing House, Inc., was a county fair board member, author, and, through his marketing company, a promoter of agricultural fairs. Laning became a lawyer, legislator, and senator, but always kept his hand in the business of promoting fairs. Laning's 1881 manual on managing fairs provides a picture of fairs of his day.

Section 3 - Agriculture, Arts, and Innovation
The early agricultural fair was a national stage for America's ingenuity--for the newest and best of everything.

In "The Role of Agricultural Fairs in Agricultural Innovation," Robert von Bernuth, agricultural engineer and professor, looks at the parallels between the evolution of the fair and agricultural innovation. He suggests that, as contemporary technology moves beyond human scale, America's intrigue with mechanization is taking on new forms with the farm show that features leading-edge innovations and antique tractor shows that celebrate the heritage of American genius.

On the basis of her investigation of the arts exhibited at four early Michigan county fairs, cultural historian Julie A. Avery describes the early agricultural fairs as the community arts organization of its day. "Early County Fairs" describes an organization which often provided a first art gallery or museum experience for the community.

A successful contemporary California experiment is described in "Arts and Fairs at the Millennium." Fairs and local arts organizations are forging new partnerships to expand the future audiences and programming of both.

Section 4 - From Small Town to Metropolis
Whether organized by a small town or a metropolitan area, America's fairs touch the lives of individuals of all ages and celebrate communities.

"See You at the Fair," by Fred Howes reveals the community spirit of Newaygo County, Michigan through individual portraits of residents involved in their county fair. Adapted from a series of articles on the hometown agricultural fair that he wrote for the Fremont, Michigan Times-Indicator in 1999, his portraits demonstrate the real impact of the fair experience on people's lives and celebrate the dedication of individuals who shape the fair.

In "Fairs and Their Changing Communities," Sharon Jensen explores the challenge of California's urban fairs as they reinvent themselves to reflect a diverse ethnic and economic community. She explores the value of the fair to an urban community removed by generations and geography from the agricultural heart of our traditional fairs.

Section 5 - America's Fairs: Educating Communities
America's fairs have evolved from a marketplace to an educational event. To be viable to their communities today's fairs require continual adaptation. The knowledge and diversity of audiences are ever changing.

In "The County Fair," Marilyn L. Thelen and Shannon Fisher of the Michigan Department of Agriculture remind us that the core values of early fairs--public education, community celebration, and youth development--remain important to the successful fairs today.

In "Youth, Fairs and Experiential Learning," internationally known 4-H youth program leader Virginia Gobeli provides a primer on experiential learning as the key element of the agricultural fair experience that leads to life learning.

Section 6 - A Select Bibliography
Judith Dow, agricultural economics librarian, has researched and annotated a bibliography of selected books, articles, theses, and dissertations about agricultural fairs in the United States and Canada. Only items published since 1990 are included. She emphasizes historical research, but includes additional titles of interest.

Annotations are included if they provide significant information beyond that contained in the title.

About the Authors
Drake Hokanson, assistant professor of mass communication at Winona State University, Winona, Minnesota, is the author of two books, Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America andReflecting a Prairie Town: A Year in PetersonCarol Kratz, a physician assistant and clinical education coordinator for the University of Wisconsin--La Crosse Physician Assistant Program, is an editor and writer of medical, scientific, and educational articles. Together they have co-edited a book about the early years of flight, soon to be released.

Julie A. Avery, administrator and assistant curator of history at the Michigan Sate University Museum, grew up with the Illinois State fair (Springfield), where she competed in arts categories and volunteered in the horse barns. She has a life-long interest in the arts and culture, and in making them broadly accessible to all citizens.

Robert "Bob" von Bernuth, professor of agricultural engineering at Michigan State University and chairperson of the Department of Agricultural Engineering from 1990 - 1997, has been a faculty member at three land grant universities. He was raised on an irrigated farm in Colorado and collects antique farm machinery of the vintage used on that farm. He and his wife live on a small farm in Clinton County, Michigan.

An interview between Mariam Ayub ( and April Geary, communications director for the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture, explains the origin of a bold project between local arts councils and fair organizations growing from a partnership between the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Arts Council.

Fred Howes, now retired from community banking and living in North Carolina, began a life-long involvement with fairs in the 1940s helping his father, who was a volunteer for the county fair horse racing program. In the 1970s and 1980s, Howes followed a family tradition and served as racing superintendent and board member for the Gratiot Agricultural Society. In 1999, when Howes was working as a publicist for the Newaygo (Michigan) County Agricultural Fair Association, this article grew from his passion to let the public know about the quality of youth programs and volunteer dedication at the fair.

Sharon Jensen is the chief executive officer of the Volunteer Center of Sacramento and former director of the Division of Fairs and Expositions, California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Marilyn L. Thelen, raised on a farm in St. Joseph County, Michigan and active in 4-H, is now the agricultural fair coordinator with the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Since 1988 she has administered the fair program to ninety local, county, and state fairs. A member of the National Association of Agricultural Fair Agencies, she served as its president in 1992 and 1999. Thelen is also a research associate with the Michigan State University Museum where she serves as co-director of the FairTime project. She has a bachelor of science in animal husbandry and a master of science in animal science from Michigan State University.

Shannon Fisher, who grew up in rural Michigan, showed livestock at her county fair for ten years and was extensively involved in Future Farmers of America (FFA), serving as Michigan's 1995-96 FFA president. A graduate of Michigan State University with a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications, Fisher remains active in the fair industry, coordinating youth agriculture programs for the Michigan State Fair.

Carol A. Carlson, who has a BSBA in management from Aquinas College and MBA from Western Michigan University, has spent twenty-five years working with Michigan fairs on management and finance issues. She is a long-standing member of the National Association of Agricultural Fair Agencies.

Virginia Gobeli is national 4-H program leader for Youth Development Education with the United States Department of Agriculture Extension Service in Washington, D. C. She has twenty-seven years' experience in Extension 4-H in the United States and is a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents. She is frequently invited abroad as a consultant on youth development.

Librarian Judith Dow has three decades of research and reference experience with Michigan State University Libraries and the Library of Michigan.