HISTORICAL TIDBITS FROM THE NEWAYGO COUNTY AGRICULTURAL FAIR ASSOCIATION
The Newaygo County Agricultural Society was formed in April of 1955 when area leaders recognized a need to promote agriculture in the county. The first elected directors of the society were President Earl Smalligan, Vice President Richard Dobben, Secretary Lyle Myers, Assistant Secretary Clarence Johnson, and Treasurer Donald McKinley. Sixteen elected township representatives and community leaders completed the Fairboard. On August 23, 1955, the first Newaygo County Fair was held at Babcock Field behind Fremont High School (where the gymnasium is now). Exhibits were housed in tents and in the bus garage. There were 800 exhibits on display including over 100 dairy animals, 20 head of beef, saddle horses, hogs, poultry, rabbits and inanimate entries. The fair was held over three days and included youth and adult exhibits, livestock shows, fat stock auction, pulling contests and band concerts to encourage people to visit the fair.
In March 1956 fairboard officials entered into an indefinite lease with the City of Fremont to occupy property just south of the city limits. The property, then known as the Warmelink Farm, was 28-acres of cornstalks and mud. Volunteers worked feverishly to level the ground and erect buildings to host the 2nd annual fair in August. The first livestock building (now the dairy barn) was built with timber donated by Raymond and Max Kempf. The Gerber Exhibition Building (now the north green building) was also built in 1956 to house inanimate entries. This building was purchased, built and donated to the Fair Association by the Gerber Foundation (a $7,000 donation). Gerber utilized the building for storage when it was not in use for the fair.
From 1957 through 1972, professional acts were a regular feature on Thursday evenings. Admission was free and acts included singers, dancers, animal performers, comedians, jugglers, and musicians that performed on television and stage circuits throughout the United States and Canada. Professional wrestling was added to the entertainment line-up in 1960. The show was held on Saturday evenings as the finale to fair week. This was the first event where admission was charged (general admission bleacher seats were 50-cents, reserved ringside admission was $1.50). Nationally recognized wrestlers staged dual bouts and tag-team finales to delight the crowd. Midget wrestlers such as “Irish Jackie” and “Dandy Moore” took the stage as the crowd favorites for several years. In 1962, Newaygo County Fair was host to the World’s Largest Man “Happy Farmer Humphrey” a 730-pound wrestler. Happy had to defeat two opponents to win his bout. In 1964, the Newaygo County Fair was even granted special permission from the Michigan State Athletic Board to allow a few bouts of female wrestling! The last professional wrestling match was held in 1965, when the Fair Board recorded a $900 loss on the wrestling match.
The dirt tractor pull was introduced in 1975. “The dirt pull is the hottest thing in a mechanical contest. It’s attracting great attention everywhere it’s put on.” said Dave Wolfsen, chairman of the special contest. The dirt pull, through various classifications, permits use of souped up tractors that challenge the mechanical ingenuity of those who like to rebuild tractors. The “hot rod” tractors brought in a crowd that filled the grandstands and stood four deep around the arena. In 1976, 86 farm tractors and six modified (Hot Rod) tractors competed in the fair’s second year of the event. The tractor pull remains a fair tradition today and is one of the biggest crowd-pleasing shows of fair week.
The first Newaygo County Salute to Agriculture Dinner was held in 1981. Sponsored by the Newaygo County 4-H Council, the menu featured items that were donated by local agricultural producers. Proceeds from the sale were used for improvements to the fairgrounds. The event was organized and operated by 4-H leaders and club members. The dinners grew in popularity as the years passed, and was one of the highlights of the fair. The last Salute to Ag dinner was held in 1994. More than 750 people were served a popular sizzling steak dinner for $3 a plate. Over the years the dinner netted as much as $1,000 at a time.
The first parade of prize-winning livestock was held in 1955 on Babcock Field. It was followed by the “Fat Stock Sale”. Sixteen steers were auctioned. Beef cattle were sponsored by local merchants and the Fremont Chamber of Commerce for 4-H and FFA members. The 1960 fair proved to be a family affair for the top winners in the fat stock sale. Grand Champion Nihil VanderHoning sold his steer to Old State Bank of Fremont, while his sister, Sonya VanderHoning sold her Reserve Champion steer to Dan Gerber of Fremont. Third and fourth place winners were also siblings; Ken Smalligan, and his brother, Gary Smalligan both sold Herefords. Sixteen steers were placed on the auction block and sold for an average of 37-cents per pound.
In 1981 Bob Gilliland of Michigan Produce Haulers purchased Rob Zeldenrust’s steer at the fair livestock sale. Unfortunately, Gilliland didn’t get to enjoy the meat of that steer because it burned in the Bill’s Shop N Save fire a few weeks later. In 2003, Gilliland bought another steer. This time it was from Rob’s daughter, Laura Zeldenrust.
Animals are purchased for the auction each spring as an educational project. Through the summer kids feed, care for and train their project animal while learning about the auction process. At fair time, youth compete with their animal for awards including showmanship and market placings. Fair tradition continues as animals are auctioned to local businesses and families on Thursday night of the fair. Exhibitors keep the proceeds of the sale.
The rich history of the Newaygo County Fair is far more detailed than we can provide in this article. We invite you to visit our fair during the second week in August to help us celebrate youth and agriculture in Newaygo County!
Written by Sara Wolfsen, Chairman
Newaygo County Agricultural Fair Historical Committee
7476 Orchard Circle
Fremont, MI 49412(231) 924-6032