By Gari Voss
The first Friday after Labor Day signals the opening of the Allegan County Fair. The fairgrounds began buzzing weeks before the fair officially would open to fairgoers at 1pm on Friday, September 8, 2023. From Sat., Sept. 9 – Sat., Sept. 16, gates open at 8am and the Commercial Exhibit Buildings are open from 11am-10pm. The days are packed with animals, arts and crafts, carnival rides, shows, and “Fair Food”. No matter which day a person or family decides to attend, there will be activities to please youth of all ages.
This is the 171st fair which has gained recognition for being one of the best county fairs not only in Michigan, but in the United States. The Allegan County Agricultural Society held its first fair in 1852 thanks to the vision and organizational skills of Elisha Ely. The Fair was held on the grounds of the County Court House, aka Baptist Church. The event gave residents across Allegan County an opportunity to share their talents, animal and agricultural prowess, and crops.
In 1856, the Fair was held on the “flats” by the Kalamazoo River, and in 1856, the Board of Supervisors felt it time to purchase eight acres which are the origins of the current grounds. As the years passed, the vision to share the fruits and talents of Allegan County remained front and center. In 1859, the Exhibition Hall was built, and in 1860, the racetrack and first grandstand were constructed.
Setting the foundation for the current Allegan County Fair, in 1874, the Allegan County Agricultural Society purchased approximately 20 acres to expand the original flats to approximately 30 acres, and currently the grounds cover approximately 115 acres. This space not only holds the expedition and commercial halls, animal buildings and grandstand, but hundreds of campsites for those wishing to live close to the Fair activities.
With even more foresight, in 1889, the Allegan Fair offered evening activities by installing 2000 candlepower arc lamps that were furnished by the Village of Allegan through profits from the Trowbridge Dam. Evening activities expanded from this investment.
The Fair saw a definite rebound from COVID-19 in 2022 and has prepared for the same crowds gathering to view the projects of the 4-H members, youth and adults who enter beautiful handiwork and art, handsome animals from small banty chickens to massive draft horses, and home-grown produce including pumpkins that make better furniture than pies.
The John Pahl Historical Village is a centerpiece of the Fair and takes fairgoers back in time. Over the years, the schoolhouse and church have been joined by a town hall, blacksmith shack, caboose, house, tool barn and more where volunteers of the Allegan County Historical Society make it possible to see activities from Allegan’s history. The agricultural barns hold thousands of pieces of Michigan’s memorabilia.
The livestock barn was already one of the largest in Michigan before the snowstorm in February 2014 crushed several buildings. The 38,000 sq. ft. structure stands next to the Weldon Rumery indoor show arena. Each day of the Fair, animals of all types will be shown and judged. On Wednesday, the youth livestock auction gives buyers the chance to view the animals on the hoof before they are put up for sale.
Even though “Fair Food” has been turned over to a wide variety of food trucks, fairgoers can still purchase local wares from the 4-H Food Booth, Allegan Band Food Booth, and the Episcopal Church Food Booth that is often just termed the “Pie Booth”.
The VFW’s Bingo building is the granddaddy of Fair games while the carnival rides provided by Skerbeck Entertainment Group include the traditional merry-go-round and Ferris wheel to the stomach-churning Zipper and Pirate Ship, to the dizzying Tilt a Whirl, or the calmer giant slide. Carnies will entice individuals to try their hand at a variety of games to win that ever-elusive giant stuffed animal. Wristbands can be purchased each day for $30. If purchased before the fair opens, a day’s wristband is $25, or a week Mega Ride Pass is $100.
For some fairgoers, the entertainment will be the goal. Local entertainers will compete in the Show Us Your Talent competition in the Youth Building. The grandstand will draw evening headliners. In 1990, the construction of the covered grandstand offered a 12,000-seat capacity between the track in front of the grandstand and the grandstand. The 1999 1600 sq. ft. addition to the stage included a 3,000 sq. ft. backstage facility so performers and their support staff have dressing rooms, showers, and offices.
In 2023, the evening performers may not include The Great Houdini or the Wonderful Douglas who headlined the 1889 fair, but it has a dynamite lineup of entertainers and wild, ear-splitting competitions.
USA Today named the Allegan County Fair the “most popular county fair in Michigan”. The Fair Board and those who share their time and talents to spotlight Allegan County’s numerous assets hope that the 2023 Fair will meet similar accolades.
The 2023 Allegan County Fair in review:
Daily: Disc Connected K9s: rescued dogs who love to share their talents in the Children’s area.
VFW Bingo near the Grandstand.
Commercial Exhibit Halls open at 11am.
Midway Rides & Games open – 3pm on weekdays; Noon on weekends
Fri., Sept. 8th: 1pm – Gates Open. Judging of open class, agriculture, horticulture and booths along with youth and open class goats and open class pigeons.
7:30pm: Jake Owen with Jamison Rodgers
Sat., Sept. 9th: 2pm – Show Us Your Talent. Throughout the day: Open Class Poultry, Youth Beef Show, Youth Dairy Starter & Dairy Steer, and Youth Horse & Pee Wee Fun Show.
7:00pm: Nelly with Trea Landon
Sun., Sept. 10th: 1-3pm – Taste of the Fair; 2pm – Show Us Your Talent. Throughout the day: Swine Weigh-in, Western Horse & Gymkhana Show, Youth Poultry & Waterfowl Show.
6:00pm: Off Road Demo Derby by Unique Motor Sports, Inc.
Mon., Sept. 11th: Carload ($20)/Children’s Day.
6:30pm – PARADE begins downtown. Throughout the day: Open Class Draft Horse & Mule Cart-Hitch, Youth Swine Show, Open Harness Pony, Mini-Mule Cart-Hitch, Youth Rabbit Show
7pm: Parade reaches Grandstand.
Tues., Sept. 12th: Senior Citizen Day.
Senior admission $5 until noon & 8am breakfast on Hilltop. Throughout day: Youth & Open Dairy Cow Show, Open Rabbit Show, Youth Driving Horse Class
7pm: Flying Star Rodeo
Wed., Sept. 13th: 9am – Ladies Day Program. Ladies Admission $5 until noon.
10am: Youth Livestock Auction
12 noon: Free Harness Horse Racing
7pm: WPI/NTPA Tractor Pulls
Thurs., Sept. 14th: Veterans Day, free admission with military confirmation. Throughout day: Open Draft Horse, Mule, Mini-Mule & Pony Halter Classes, Open Class Beef, Dog Show on Hilltop
7:30pm, Steve Trevino, comedian
Fri., Sept. 15th: 6pm – Finals for Show Us Your Talent; 6pm – Youth Top Showmen Orientation
7:30pm, Riley Green with Drake Milligan
Sat., Sept. 16: Last day of the Fair. 9am – English Horse Show; 3pm – Youth All Around Showmanship Contest
6:00pm, State Championship, Demolition Derby by Unique Motor Sports, Inc.