The Story of "Michigan's Longest Running Fair"
The agricultural society of Lenawee county organized and held its first fair in 1839 making it Michigan’s oldest county fair. The fair originally took place in downtown Adrian between River Street and the River Raisin. In 1879 the grandstand collapsed in the counties worst disaster to date. The events sent the fair into bankruptcy but the agricultural society persevered.
In 1884, the society purchased the Dean Street site. The oldest building on the grounds is the octagonal Grange building. In 1905, the Daily Telegram claimed "No other county in the world has as many Grange as Lenawee county." The 4H building, the women’s Congress building, and the grandstand are among the fairgrounds other early structures.
Read the Full History
The 1849 fair sported a horticultural display in the courtroom and a handful of livestock pens in the yard. Although it was hardly a “county fair” by today’s standard, it launched the agricultural event that became a mainstay in the county and was anticipated by everyone annually for decades to come. Over the next several years the fair grew in increments and moved about to different locations, including Hudson in 1854, never finding a permanent place to roost. That all changed in 1859 when the Agricultural Society of Lenawee County purchased part of a 10-acre island in the River Raisin just west of the Maumee Street bridge, for a permanent site. The county purchased the rest of the island for the Agricultural Society and the first Lenawee County Fairgrounds was born. The City of Adrian joined in and built a footbridge from the “mainland.” The event was a rousing success with over 15,000 guests attending on opening day in 1859. The island and bridge served the fair well for several years when, in 1872 the bayou was filled in and the city replaced the bridge with a walkway. The fairgrounds were enlarged in 1873 when the Ag Society purchased additional land and built a dining hall. It seemed as though the Lenawee County Fair had found a permanent home — then came the deluge. Mother Nature is a hard taskmaster. Heavy rains in April 1877, coupled with the filling in of the bayou, resulted in flooding that destroyed most of the buildings and the racetrack. Moving the fair to a higher and drier piece of land was considered. A local businessman, W. H. Stone, prepared some of his farmland to be used as the new fairground with the understanding that the fair would relocate there. The Agricultural Society decided not to move to the Stone property but, instead, to rebuild on the island. In 1878 they were forced to sell the island fairgrounds and announced that there would be no fair in 1878. New leadership took control of the Society and pushed forward with a five-year lease on Lawrence Park from W. T. Lawrence. They shifted into high gear to ensure a county fair in 1878 despite the earlier proclamation. The 1878 Fair was a modest success and a new grandstand was planned for 1879. Construction of the new grandstand set the stage for the worst disasters in the history of Adrian. The structure contained almost no braces or other stabilizing components to give it strength. One observer, who witnessed the construction, warned that it was just “pine timbers toe-nailed together.” During the first big event at the grandstand between 800 and 1,000 spectators were in their seats. Near the end of the event, the grandstand simply collapsed under the load. Part of it toppled into the river killing between 15 and 20 people and injuring hundreds more, many of whom were disabled for life. As with every other major disaster, people need someone to blame. They looked to the builder, a man named Armstrong, who quickly left town to avoid prosecution. Fingers were pointed at W. T. Lawrence, owner of the property, who was subsequently charged and prosecuted. He was acquitted by the jury and went on to build a new, and safer, grandstand in time for the 1880 fair. The five-year lease, which expired in 1882, was not renewed because Lawrence was raising the rent, taking over the food concessions and demanding title to any new buildings built on the property. It was once again time for the Agricultural Society to find a new home for the Lenawee County Fair. One of the final events before the move was a hot air balloon ascent by an Adrian man who owned a balloon and who agreed to a night ascension. Unfortunately, his balloon caught fire just as the ropes were released and the blazing balloon with its surprised balloonist sailed north, landing on one of the buildings at the state school for girls. Fortunately, his pride was the only thing seriously injured. Some land on the east side of Adrian was a perfect fit. Thirty financial backers materialized, and what is now the Lenawee County Fairgrounds, was born. The new location was up and running in time for the 1884 fair. The Lenawee Agricultural Society built a new, solid grandstand in 1885. Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show was the first event to perform there. The show was held the week before the fair opened in late September. Both the Wild West Show and the county fair were rousing successes. The fair was firmly planted, and the new fairgrounds provided confidence that the fair was here to stay. The 1890s proved to be good years for the fair. Attendance climbed into, and remained in, the thousands throughout the decade. This was also a period of growth with several new buildings being added, including an eight-bay grange building in 1899. Attendance continued to increase and, in 1904, 40,000 people attended on Friday and another 15,000 on Saturday demonstrating that the cultural benefits of the fair were well received by the people of Lenawee County. The fairgrounds were more than just a place to hold the county fair. One of the biggest entertainment events of the decade came in 1905 when the Ringling Brothers Circus came to the fairgrounds. Eighteen thousand people attended the afternoon show with thousands more filling the “big top” for the evening performance. By 1910 there were seven exhibit buildings on 40 acres with 1,000 livestock pens, heavily advertised on posters and other printed materials. Fair attendance was at a level that attracted high profile entertainment and, in 1910, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show returned to the fairgrounds. The following decades experienced continued growth and popularity. Fast-forward to 1942. War was raging in Europe and the Pacific and people on the home front needed a diversion. One report read, “The Lenawee County Fair will be an entertainment fixture . . . despite hardships that may be brought on by war.” However, due to cold weather, attendance was 8,086, down from 11,605 the previous year. The 1942 fair was mostly 4H and FFA with war bonds being sold at the Kiwanis Club booth. It was also a record year for the price of a cow. A 5-year-old Holstein named Montvic Bonheur Pietje B sold for $6,500 to Martin Booth of Comstock Park. The cow had produced 615 pounds of butterfat in the first six months of her present lactation period. Attendance returned to normal following the war. The 1950s saw a drop in attendance that was attributed to a late September date. The fair was moved to mid-August in 1959 to avoid school conflicts and facilitate youth and 4H participation. The Michigan Futurity, a big stakes race for Michigan trotters came in 1953. Unemployment and economic problems caused a reduction in attendance in 1975 and the fair lost money. The 1976 fair featured Ken Curtis (Festus from Gunsmoke), a motorcycle thrill show, the Michigan Futurity, a demolition derby and the first small animal auction, complete with rabbits, chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. There was a waiting list of companies wanting to exhibit. The 1990s brought top entertainment to Adrian. Loretta Lynn, Travis Tritt and Alabama appeared and in 1999 Britney Spears headlined the fair’s Sesquicentennial. In 2000, 2,000 spectators and 40 racers competed in the first lawn mower race featuring riding mowers at up to 60 mph. Proceeds from the race benefit Lenawee county charities, including the Salvation Army. One competitor quipped, “Where else can you be Jeff Gordon for a day?” Entering the 21st century, the fair continued to hold its own in the county and in 2014, the Ag Society celebrated 175 years of Lenawee County Fairs. Not only had the fair been a standing feature of the county, it holds the distinction of being Michigan’s first and oldest county fair.