Tuesday, September 4, 2012

1879 Kalamazoo County Fair

My family recently attended the Wilson County Fair (the largest in Tennessee). A major draw to county fairs these days is the wide variety of rides, but many things remain the same as they did in our ancestors' time. Examining farm equipment and judging livestock are fixtures now just as they were then. Another staple of the fair experience is being stuck in traffic while trying to get there. On our first attempt to go to the fair this year we actually gave up after barely moving for nearly an hour and still being nowhere near the fairgrounds. As I discovered, we were no different from our Kalamazoo relations who also got stuck in traffic on the way to the 1879 Kalamazoo County Fair. Based on newspaper accounts in the Kalamazoo Telegraph here is what it may have been like to attend the fair in 1879.

The third day of the fair dawned clear and cool, only in the 40s, but that could not deter my husband and myself from attending the Kalamazoo county fair. We knew many others who held off until today because they too were eager to witness the big day of horse racing, but somehow I just wasn't prepared for the buggy-to-buggy traffic we encountered on the road to the fair grounds. I'm glad I thought to bring a couple of extra quilts to keep us warm. From what we heard from others it was the same on the other roads leading to the fair. Nothing but horses, buggies and wagons until about noon.

I carefully picked my way around the parked teams and buggies. The last thing I wanted to do was get something other than dirt on the hem of my dress. We finally entered the crush in the exhibit halls. We have attended the fair for many years and agreed with our friends that never had we seen so many milling about the halls and stalls at the fair. I found out later that the attendance was estimated at 6,000. [1] That's not bad for a county with about 12,000 inhabitants. [1]

As we entered Floral Hall we were greeted by the scent of innumerable flowers. The hall itself was trimmed for the occasion; it was a trifle plain, but prettily done, nonetheless. We also noticed the fountain within was “very neatly arranged.” [2] The variety of flowers was dizzying. Mr. Flanders alone had over thirty types of asters. [2] It was a splendid exhibit. And to think that he raised them all from seed. [2] Beyond Flanders' set-up we saw houseplants, dahlias, roses, verbenas, oleanders, gladiolii, dianthus, geraniums, phlox, fuchsias, pansies, coxcombs and clematis in all the colors of the rainbow. [3] Each display seemed more wonderful than the next. I wished I could have taken some with me to enliven the rooms at home. Floral hall seemed an appropriate setting for Mr. Goodale, the undertaker's, exhibit. We saw many admiring his “beautiful array of burial caskets.” [1] While the styles were quite lovely and the materials unsurpassed, “truth to say, there was not a visitor but would willingly forgo the use of them for many years to come.” [1]

Some committee members were still passing through the halls making last-minute inspections before finalizing the results and awarding the ribbons for first, second and third place. I enjoy viewing the entries, but I would hate to have to choose between them. Especially this year when I understand there were nearly 1500 in all. The “entries up to Monday were the largest in the history of the society.” [2] There were far too many to describe here so I'll simply mention ones I found notable.

We slowly inched our way forward to examine Frank Henderson's cases filled with the regalia he manufactures. His customers include the Knights Templar, Masonic and other societies. His fine “workmanship and tastefullness [sic] of arrangement, well merits the admiration” he receives. [1] “Mr. H is constantly receiving orders from all parts of the country by telegraph and otherwise, and the reputation of his work is wide spread. The various laces, fringes and buttons used in the manufacture of his goods are of Mr. Henderson's own importation, direct from the factories in France.” [1]

We also briefly admired the five different sewing machines brought by Mr. Miller, “all of beautiful pattern and most perfect working qualities.” [1] The “Royal St. John” impressed many and “it is claimed, [it] combines all that is desirable in a perfect working instrument of its kind – possessing the most points of excellence, the most new and valuable improvements, ability to do all kinds of work, lightness of running and ease of movement, simplicity and durability of construction, noiselessness, etc.” [1] If only it would sew by itself so that I could devote myself to other necessary housework.

Across the way we perused the “very fine and ample display” of stoves. Devisser & Co had twenty-three varieties in all. Both wood and coal burners were on view ranging from parlor to cooking stoves. [2]. Messers. Parson, Wood & Phelps had “the famous Mills cooking range, said to be the best on earth,” along with other cooking ranges and stoves. Both hardware firms also had a fine assortment of granite iron ware and tin ware. [2] My husband wondered how many teams it required to haul so many heavy stoves here.

We also admired fine marble works, jewelry, worsted work, and ready-made clothing. Musical instruments, boots & shoes, millinery, photographs by George Winans, fancy goods, embroidery and needle work were also on display. We were also much interested in “a handsome collection of arrow head, stone implements, and other relics of the pre-historic age.” [2]

One display that really caught my attention was Mr. Morse's selection of hats. They were very elegantly trimmed in the latest fall patterns. All of the ladies I spoke with agreed that the hats were “trimmed with the good taste and regard for the harmonious blend of color which characterizes the work of this establishment.” [4] I was well pleased that Mr. Morse was awarded the first premium. I could have stood gazing longingly at them for quite some time, but there was still much to see before the racing began.

In Fruit Hall, “the display of vegetables surpasses that of any other show we remember to have attended.” [2] Some of the vegetables shown here even won the first premiums at the state fair. [2] Ribbons were awarded for wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat, corn, beans, clover seed, timothy seed, hops, turnips, beets, onions, parsnips, carrots, peppers, celery, “vegetable eggs,” cabbage, cauliflower, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, watermelons, citrons, various varieties of apples, peaches, pears, grapes, plums, quinces, cheese, butter, canned fruit, canned vegetables, preserved fruit, jellies, honey, bread, biscuits, cider, cider vinegar, pickles, maple sugar and maple syrup. [3] My mouth was watering before we had made our way a quarter of the length of the hall. There was also much to see among the nursery stock. The peach trees were simply splendid. Mr. Geo. Taylor exhibited a very fine collection of trees and shrubs, many of which were conifers. [2] I may consider adding some arbor vitae at our home if I can find some as handsome as those shown at the fair.

Other items on display included: needlework, cretonne work, applique work, bead work, hair work, wax work, sofa pillows, toilet sets, pin cushions, rugs, pillow shams, slippers, undergarments, wool and cotton stockings, mittens, chair tidys, crocheted lamp mats, lambrequins, carriage afghans, patchwork quilts, piano stools, air castles, knit brackets, pictures, oil paintings, drawings, fancy picture frames and exquisite penmanship. [3] Perhaps I shouldn't admit it, but seeing the crocheted undergarments made me giggle. I simply won't be able to look at anyone in the Downey family without turning crimson for imagining them wearing Miss Mary Downey's handiwork.

Sonja Hunter, copyright Aug 2012, all rights reserved.

We then passed by the horse and cattle stalls as well as the sheep and hog pens and observed some fine specimens. The poultry too were in good form. As for the farm equipment, with improvements made every year there is always something new to see. Jno. McKee Jr. & Co and others made “a very large and fine display of farming machinery, having over 30 different machines on the grounds, the estimated value of which is nearly $7,000.” Among these were plows, including the famed sulky plow, a self-binder harvester, reapers, mowers, a combined reaper and mower, corn planters, case seeders and separators. [1] Amid this vast assortment there were a few that stood out to my eye. One of the “separators on exhibition has been in successful operation this season, and during a period of thirty-seven days threshed 37,481 bushels of wheat, an average capacity of 1,013 bushels per diem. Taken as a whole this exhibit was one of the finest of the kind on the grounds and attracted much attention.” [1]

“Crowds of farmers and experts” are examining the Dodge Plow daily. [4] It “is particularly adapted to plowing stoney or hard, dry soil, from four to ten inches deep, as well as prairie, sod, or stubble; and when compared with any other plow doing the same amount of work is very much lighter draft. The claims of the inventor are confirmed by the award of the committee.” [4] The sulky plow also garnered a great deal of notice. The large sales of them seem to support “the claim for the lightness of draft, convenience and ready adjustment, it has no equal, and the necessary farming implements which can be attached to the sulky, (aside from the plow, including cultivator, harrow, etc) combine to make it one of the greatest labor-saving machines of the age.” [1 This sulky plow, of over fifty manufactured, “stands alone as the peer of all, and Kalamazoo may well be proud to reckon this among her most successful manufacturing interests.” [1]

There were also some nice examples of carriages, buggies and wagons on view, but my husband and I knew the races would begin soon and we needed to proceed to the track post haste. Despite the cold temperatures it seemed that the exhibit halls emptied when it was time for the horse racing to commence. The grand stand was packed by the time we approached the track so we had to be satisfied with a position track-side. We breathed in the excitement knowing we would soon be inhaling dust as the horses thundered by. First came the speed contest for the gentlemen's driving horses. It was a tame race, but the running contest more than made up for that.

“The running contest was a poor affair as a race, but furnished great amusement for the crowd.” [4] The horses were to run mile heats. Bismarck, Rowdy and Black Ann took off with Bismarck in the lead. He “ran pretty well till after reaching the quarter pole, then suddenly bolted, tossing his rider over his head and galloped to the stable, but was caught and sent after 'Rowdy' and 'Black Ann.'” Apparently taking a cue from Bismarck, Black Ann then bolted “down the back stretch, threw her rider and [ran] across the cultivated field. . . The second heat was given to 'Biz.' and 'Black Ann' did not reappear on the track. The next three heats constituted scenes in a roaring farce. 'Bismarck' twice threw his rider and finally had to be slowed up in going by the gap to the stables.” [4]

Then came the “free for all race” which consisted of county horses in mile heats, racing for $30, $20 and $15 premiums. The first heat “was sharp and exciting,” with Dick the winner. In the second, the drivers were “fined $1 each, which they pulled out and paid” for ignoring the judges command for a standing start. Initially behind, Dick “went ahead, swinging around the circle in an easy, steady, square trot” to win again. “Dick easily won [the third] heat though in the rear most of the time till he came into the home stretch, when with a magnificent stride he pulled away from his struggling competitors and came home in a 2:26 gate.” Dick easily won first money, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle afterward. One of the judges “said he knew the horse was a 'ringer' [a track horse under an assumed name] and so ruled him out,” though he “took no means to prove the charge.” [4] “Afterwards the committee offered Mr. Badger the third premium. . . but 'Dick's' owner indignantly refused. The splendid trotting of this animal yesterday shows him to be among the best horses of this class in the west.” [4]

And so another Kalamazoo county fair was at an end for us, though one day officially remained. Our trip home was much like it had been in the morning, though the pre-fair excitement of the morning's journey had evaporated. Now the procession of horses and buggies carried passengers anxious to reach home before darkness set in. As we rode home lulled by the movement of the buggy I mused how the end of the fair always signals a change for me. It means the warm summer days are gone for good. It's now time for the wind to whisper to the leaves that it's time to put on their party colors before they decorate my walking paths. It's time to stow the apples in the root cellar. To make sure there is enough fire wood and await the snows to come.

  1. Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 9-25-1879, p4
  2. Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 9-24-1879, p4
  3. Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 9-29-1879, p1-2
  4. Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, 9-26-1879, p4


  1. Sonja, this was so creative, I loved it. And, of course, I was trying to find mention of an ancestor or two!

  2. Thanks, Barbara! I started writing in third person, but it just cried out to me for a different approach. If you really want to look for ancestor names, go to the KPL website and pull up the Telegraph from 9-27-1879 and 9-29-1879. They list the names of everyone who received a ribbon and there were a lot of them (about 4 columns worth).