Under Austerity, We Can’t Have Nice Things Like State Fairs Anymore

Just about every political horserace journalist is at the Iowa State Fair today, covering the Ames straw poll, and eating a seemingly endless supply of fried butter, porkchop on a stick, and meat sundaes. GOP (and a few Democratic) politicians are there too, allowing themselves to be photographed stuffing their mouths with phallic objects in an apparent attempt to appear authentic or folksy. It’s DC’s opportunity, it seems, to experience what (they imagine) life is like in quaint flyover country.

Only, life’s not like that anymore–at least not in two flyover (swing) states. In this day and age, you see, some states can’t afford nice things like state fairs anymore.

Last year, MI shut down its 160-year old fair (it was the second oldest fair in the country). And this year, NV shut down its fair for the first time in 136 years.

Now, I won’t kid you and pretend I was a long-time MI fair-goer. I went for the first time in 2009 (the last one), 14 years after I moved to the state (though my decision to go had as much to do with having a 2 year old friend I knew would love to see the “Cow-Pigs” as it being the last fair). And I think the MI State Fair’s location, in the northwest corner of Detroit, suffered from being far from the agricultural heart of the state (though of course its location made it easily accessible to the bulk of the population). If I had my way they’d reopen the fair in Lansing, still accessible to SE MI’s population base, but much closer to more of the farming in this state.

Nor do I think losing the state fair was the most tragic budget cut of the last several years. I’d support funding education and human services before we reopen the fair. But, particularly given the important role of agriculture in this state, I would like to see them reopen the fair.

State fairs are, to some extent, all about fantasy: games and dreams and shiny lights (and, in IA’s case, fantasies about flyover country). But there’s a reality behind them. And the increasing reality out here in flyover country is that we’re shutting down such fantasies because years of  tax cuts and the generalized decline of the US economy mean we can’t support them anymore.

(Image by Dave Hogg, used under Creative Commons)

32 replies
  1. croyal says:

    That what those states get for being so mean to the “job creators” of the country. Rick Perry knows how this works–let the job creators pollute the hell out your state while slashing worker benefits and laying off as they please, then make the restrictions for getting unemployment benefits too prohibitive for most people in real need, so they languish among the underemployed in crappy part-time jobs instead of being on the government’s back. That’s how you can have your state fair. Granted hardly any Texan can afford to go or get a couple days straight off from their 5 hour, irregular shifts at WalMart…

  2. MadDog says:

    This post hits me right square in the heart. I don’t pretend to know how deeply or not the loss of the State Fair affects Michiganders, but here in Minnesota it would be like losing our soul.

    Which is funny since I’ve not been at the Minnesota State Fair since I was a teenager (I even worked there briefly as a teenager. Got assigned to shovel the shit in the Horse Barn. I lasted all of 2 days. *g*).

    This NYT article from 2006 describes the general state of affairs (pun intended) at the nation’s State Fairs, but only explains at a surface level some of the dwindling attendance and financial problems that were present in 2006.

    It does not explain why there is dwindling attendance in some states nor does it explain why some states have financial problems with their State Fairs.

    Though Texas claims the largest attendance at their State Fair, that claim is looked down upon here in Minnesota because Texas is a free event.

    Minnesota justifiably thumps our chest because we have the largest paid attendance anywhere in the US.

    Perhaps one of the reasons that Minnesota’s State Fair is successful is that we never lost our rural farming roots.

    Which is really only true in our imaginations since only a tiny minority of Minnesota’s population (3% in 2000 according to this study – 11 page PDF) is our farming population.

    But we didn’t have our major city(ies) transformed like Detroit into a City of Industry with its almost total focus on Manufacturing.

    We probably envied Detroit at the time, and probably thanked our lucky stars later as the rust crept into the nation’s manufacturing middle.

    In the end, as I said at the beginning, I don’t think Minnesotans can even fathom the loss of our State Fair soul. We probably imagine that it would mean that Minnesota was no more.

    Don’t let anyone tell you that Minnesotan’s don’t have a touch of the “drama queen” in their self-identity. *g*

  3. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: MI didn’t lose its rural roots, either. Remember in addition to being home to GM, we’re home to Kelloggs. Ag remains our 2nd largest industry (and we’ve probably got more people in it bc we have high-value crops like fruit).

    That’s one reason I raised the location of the fair in Detroit. While it may have been easy to forget MI’s Ag side in Detroit, it would be a lot harder to do out here.

  4. prostratedragon says:

    Where else but a state fair is a city kid —not just by location, but by cultural choice— going to get a good, thick, juicy* slice of a certain Americana?

    You can get close to really beautiful animals and convince yourself that they are real. (The Percherons and other tall horses do prefer a bit of distance to sort of see you, though. But they’re very nice, too.) And I, for one, came away impressed by and grateful for the devoted labor of the shit-shovellers, as evinced by the fresh, clean scent of the animal barn. Really, you’d never have known … and doubtless that was one reason the animals were so mellow.

    There was a demolition derby —how many folks are going to check out an emblematic event like that, unless it’s bundled with other things? There was Al Capone’s limo. There were rides. There was other live entertainment, though after 15 or more years I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who. You see the people, the people see you, like every day in the city, but different people.

    I hope they bring the fair back soon, not too far from one of the larger cities. Lansing is more central, and maybe something creative could be done using that land grant school they have up by there some way. But even Detroit to Grand Rapids would be no worse than a day trip to Cedar Point, maybe just extra half hour each way, if that were the location that worked out best all round.

    * I’ve eaten yards of bratwurst in a mostly vain attempt to replicate 3 of the best brat sandwiches one could imagine, the last of which I had at the MI state fair. Boy am I overdue!

  5. Bill Cole says:

    Losing the MI state fair isn’t just about austerity, it is about the changing nature of agriculture and demographics. We still have a lot of agriculture in Michigan, but even many of the so-called “family farms” are really better described as family-owned agribusinesses. The types of farm that made a state fair a worthwhile public endeavor decades ago have thinned out across the state and can’t really justify a state fair any more. As you say, state fairs have become increasingly works of fantasy, and that’s why they should be a low priority.

    That said, Michigan does still have a lot of country fairs, including the non-governmental variety as well as county and regional fairs that get varied types of public support. http://www.michiganfairs.org/ has a lot of info on them.

    I suspect that one reason the state fair was unsustainable was that with all the other fairs in the southeast region, (including Wayne, Oakland, and Monroe county fairs and the Armada Fair in Macomb County) there just wasn’t any way to make the State Fair special enough for enough people to get them to attend an event in Detroit. There is an irrational but very real fear of Detroit among many Michiganders who never actually go there, and that can’t help. As stupid as it is, there really are people in Macomb and Oakland Counties who have dreamed up the idea that anything south of their own invented green line is basically a free-fire urban nightmare. I’ve heard M-59, 16 Mile, and 12 Mile all cited as the border of hell. As someone living in a quiet and richly mixed suburban neighborhood south of 9 Mile, I find those people disturbing, but they exist. I suspect your idea of reviving the fair in Lansing would actually draw more people from the area around Detroit than the fair did in its last few years in Detroit.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Don’t know who to blame Mighigan’s loss then if not on the Big Wheels in Detroit.

    Seriously though, say what you will about the size of farming in Michigan, there is no doubt that manufacturing was a whole lot bigger deal all through the 20th century in Michigan than it ever was here in Minnesota.

    Starting with Henry Ford’s Detroit Automobile Company in 1899 and continuing on through WW II with all the planes, tanks and trucks manufactured for the US Armed Forces, and then finally the big mass market auto manufacturing push after WW II, the emphasis on manufacturing in Michigan, and in particular Detroit and its environs, dwarfed any manufacturing that developed here in Minnesota.

    I’m not saying that Manufacturing and its tax base was the proximate cause of the loss of the Michigan State Fair, but one does have to wonder about its cultural effects in relation to a State Fair which has its antecedents in Farming.

  7. Bill Cole says:

    For people in Detroit, the Armada Fair (http://www.armadafair.org/) can be a reasonable substitute for not having a State Fair any more. It is in northern Macomb County and has all of the same sorts of attractions of the State Fair in a smaller scale. The Demolition Derby is Wednesday 8/17 if you’re into that sort of thing.

    As for the animals… I can’t speak to the MISF, but in the past I’ve been to the IL and MO state fairs and they were both just too big. County fairs (and county-scaled fairs like Armada’s) are cool because you can see everything without a herculean effort and get up close and personal with the real stars of the show.

  8. MadDog says:

    @prostratedragon: Don’t even ask me about corndogs! *g*

    As a kid, I dreamed of State Fair corndogs slathered in mustard. And paid the price for my infatuation. Ate half a dozen or so once at the State Fair and ended up puking my guts out.

    Never ate one again. *g*

  9. emptywheel says:

    @Bill Cole: I buy your argument about the segregation in SE MI.

    But the family farm thing doesn’t make any sense. I’m pretty sure we’ve got more family farms here than IA (and, for that matter, MN). We absolutely have more diversity than either of the other two. All of which ought to make it conducive to a fair.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @emptywheel: In fact the opposite might be the case: that is, we have less very big corporate $$ in our famrs, which might be a source of funding, energy in the other two states?

  11. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: The commentary on this subject leads me to wonder what the financing differences are between Michigan (and other states) and what we have here in Minnesota.

    While I haven’t Googled Michigan yet, on page 11 of this document (49 page PDF) contains the 2009 Minnesota State Fair financial information.

    Though never a Financial Analyst, I’ve had P&L responsibilities before and as a result, had to become at least minimally familiar with reading an organization’s financial reports.

    At first glance, the 2009 Minnesota State Fair finances depend primarily on the ticket sales and activity revenues to sustain itself.

    I’m sure the Financial Analyst-types in residence here at Rancho Emptywheel can inform us with more granularity than I can, but it seems that from what I’ve read, the Minnesota State Fair is run without tapping state taxes.

  12. Garrett says:

    A State Fair story.

    When I was a long-haired kid, and precinct chair, the local party called me up to serve my shift at the donut booth. This was a regular donut booth at the Minnesota Fair, from which the local party got a good amount of money.

    I thought “donut booth” was metaphor. So I showed up at the prime DFL pavilion to serve my shift.

    They were confused by this for a bit, and then set me down handing out literature, in the chair next to Walter Mondale.

  13. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Yeah, there was an article w/the head of the MN Fair saying he was glad they didn’t take state $$.

    Also, they do a better job of attracting big music talent, which brings in crowds.

    I think it’d be harder for MI to do that–their state fairgrounds are pretty beat up.

  14. MadDog says:

    @Garrett: If there is any food I miss the most, it is the mini-donuts from the Minnesota State Fair.

    Hot, right from the oil, covered with crystalized sugar. Mmmm-mmmm good!

  15. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I’m guessing the Minnesota State Fairgrounds were an exceptional value back in the 1890s “when the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners donated their 210-acre poor farm to the State Agricultural Society, the governing body of the State Fair.”

    And I have no idea what a “poor farm” actually is. They grow “poor” there? *g*

    At the time when the present Fairgrounds were located, that was probably the outer limits of St. Paul proper. Everything further north was likely farmland.

    Now of course, it sits smack dab in the middle of St. Paul and Minneapolis suburbs.

  16. MadDog says:

    @Garrett: Some will be and some won’t be. I confess to a penchant for sheltering in my online anonymity, but I could be persuaded otherwise. *g*

  17. Bill Cole says:

    @emptywheel: It’s not about the absolute number of family farms but rather about their concentration, nature, and significance to the state economy. I don’t have comparative state stats, but anecdotally I can say that in the 70’s my extended family across northwestern lower MI had 6 different farms, each with some livestock, today my larger extended family in a somewhat broader area has one running farm with no livestock.

    State fairs are a mechanism to promote the business of agriculture, and particularly a style of agribusiness that has been losing ground for decades. It’s a little sad that the State of Michigan no longer wants to subsidize a state fair, but it’s a lot sadder that they’ve tightened eligibility for the Chidrens Special Health Services, cut aid to municipalities and school districts forced ISD’s to weaken special education programs, and so on. As you note, NV’s cancellation was economic because they were not dependent on state funding. The Great Lakes Ag Fair planned for this month in Pontiac failed for the same reason. Meanwhile, the Armada Fair is going strong after more than a century as a self-supporting operation. Across the state

  18. Bill Cole says:

    [errant mis-click mid-thought]

    Across the state there are ag fairs of various sizes and funding mechanisms, and other than having one within public transit reach of Detroiters, I don’t know that we’ve really lost anything by losing the state fair. Since the people it was supposed to be serving largely voted in the reps who defunded it and the private ag sector won’t pony up, I don’t see much reason to mourn it.

  19. emptywheel says:

    @Bill Cole: Well, I now live in a heavily Ag part of the state. And while big cash crops like blueberries have consolidation (though there are still tons of smaller farms), there are still tons of family farms.

    Again, it may be that the state farm is far away from the family farms. But there are still a ton here–probably more than in any other midwest state, given that we have more diversity in our agriculture than any state but CA.

  20. emptywheel says:

    @Bill Cole: And I absolutely agree with you –as I said in the post–that funding the state fair should not be a priority over education and human services. Absolutely no dispute there.

  21. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    @Bill Cole: Well, it’s a shame to see the fairs become a metaphor for larger system failures.

    One of my kids showed cows all the way up from County to state fair. Got some nice scholarship money, and even today those kids who hung out in the cow barns together and ate far too many milkshakes and burgers remain lifelong pals. They’ve always kept in touch. They help each other all the time. Some have kids, some don’t. They all have jobs. They’ve all done well, and and every one of them has one hell of a work ethic.

    I’d say the same of half my cousins.
    You can have the best education on the planet, but nothing teaches kids the lessons they learn in FFA, or in 4-H.

    The loss of the state fairs is the kind of loss that no balance sheet can fully capture.

  22. thatvisionthing says:


    allowing themselves to be photographed stuffing their mouths with phallic objects

    “blow job blow job blow job”?

  23. Kathleen says:

    “Last year, MI shut down its 160-year old fair (it was the second oldest fair in the country). And this year, NV shut down its fair for the first time in 136 years.”

    Had no idea. I actually like state fairs going through the barns looking the critters that the 4h youth are raising. Always took my daughters and their friends when they were young. Really a cultural experience.

    County fairs are a treasure. Too bad no news coverage of these fair closings

    Started to get into the demolition derby. Had no idea there were so many rules. A hoot

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