The St. Joseph County Grange Fair, locally known as the Centreville Grange Fair, is ranked among the top five fairs in Michigan. It began back in 1851 and is still one of the most popular fairs to visit in Michigan.
The following is an article written by the Lions International Club around Christmas in 1966:
History of the Fair
For those of us who have the privilege of living in St. Joseph County Michigan terms like “fair week,” “the midway,” “kids day,” “horse racing” and a host of others have become a part of our way of life. Most of us take the St. Joseph County Grange Fair, better known as the Centreville Fair, for granted. We are used to hearing people from a distance remark, “Centreville, that is town where they have such a wonderful fair.” We all enjoy the excitement of fair week and return year after year to see new exhibits and experience good entertainment. Hundreds of us are inspired by the annual service of worship sponsored by the Fairground Mission that officially opens the fair.
Like any other worthwhile institution, the Centreville Fair is a result of many dedicated people who, over the years, have worked diligently to make it what it is today. It is our feeling that you, the readers of the Lion‟s Newspaper will enjoy reading a brief historical sketch of the fair. In order to obtain information for this article, we consulted a History of St. Joseph County written in 1877. Most of the information, however, came from an interview with who men whose names will always be synonymous with the fair, Mr. Howard Bucknell and Mr. Lester Schrader.
The fair dates back to November 27, 1849 to the organization of The St. Joseph County Agricultural Society. The executive committee of this society announced the first fair or exhibition on September 20, 1851. Ninety three dollars in premiums were offered for livestock and farm products in that year. The fair was held on October 22 at which time judging was carried out and an address was given by Joseph R. Williams of Constantine. By 1877, the fair had grown and was an established institution. The following statement was made in the history of 1877. “The society owns some eighteen acres of land joining the village of Centreville, eligibly located, on which they have erected commodious buildings and sheds, the whole valued at several thousand dollars.”
There is little information available concerning the fair from 1877 until 1916. Over the years, however, it is known that the fair had financial reverses, and borrowed money from the St. Joseph County Mutual Protection Association. This association often called the anti-horse thief society was an early insurance plan to protect the citizens of the county against horse thieves. Finally, the fair was discontinued and the grounds converted to the anti-horse thief society.
In 1916, there were only a few members left of the old protection association. The remaining members agreed to let the Grange have the grounds if they would operate the fair. This arrangement has been most satisfactory and exists to the present time.
When the fair re-opened the main gate was located west of the Grange building. The fair was operated for a few years as a day fair since there was no way to light the grounds. The gate was opened late in the forenoon and closed at dark. In 1916, there was a sod race track because it had not been used for several years, only four horses were raced that year. A gate admission of 25 cents was charged for several years.
Entertainment at those early fairs differed greatly from the midway and shows at the fair today. There were always baseball games. Balloon ascensions were popular in that day and were a familiar sight at the fairgrounds. One year an airplane was assembled on the infield and later flown for the spectators to see. In the 1920’s J.C. Weir was contracted to provide rides at the fair and the first year he came he brought only three.
Tragedy struck the fairgrounds in the early 1920’s when the grandstand burned one Sunday morning. The old building was built of native whitewood which could not be replaced at any price today. Soon after the fire it was learned that there was no insurance on the structure. A new grandstand was quickly built of rough lumber and served the purpose for several years. One year the room was in need of repair over the grandstand. On the Saturday and Sunday before the fair a man was hired to tar it. On Saturday, he received $1.00 for his day’s work and on Sunday he received $2.00.
Electricity was brought to the grounds and night shows were introduced. At that time, the electricity was supplied by the village light plant and when the stage lights were turned on the lights all over town went dim. As Mr. Bucknell put it, “You almost had to strike a match to see if the bulbs were lit.” Several men persuaded the townspeople to turn off their lights for a while and the show did go on.
The grandstand soon became inadequate and in 1935 Mr. Schrader and Mr. Bucknell went to Chicago where the buildings of the World‟s Fair called The Century of Progress were being dismantled. A wrecking company was selling all types of used materials and even had a sawmill set up to cut lumber to desired sizes. A contractor, Mr. Steve Kontak was hired to build a new grandstand and he places an order with the wrecking company. Two carloads of material were shipped to Centreville including a large quantity of California Redwood and electrical wiring. The old grandstand was razed and the present structure was erected. Mr. Kontak received 75 cents per hour, his five carpenters 60 cents per hour and some local men were hired from 30 cents to 50 cents.
After the grandstand was built, there was a strong feeling that an effort must be made to attract more people to the fair. It was decided to have a promotional project where four Chevrolet Automobiles would be raffled off. Tickets were sold all over the surrounding territory and people came by the hundreds for the drawing. It was stipulated that the winning ticket holder must be on the grounds in order to collect.
Entertainment was also greatly improved to attract larger crowds. In the late 1930’s B. Ward Beam was contracted to provide the show. He brought a review of 24 girls all dressed in beautiful full length gowns. Along with this review were two comedians. Jackie Gleason was part of this team and appeared two different years on the Centreville stage. It is said that Mr. Gleason spent part of each afternoon before the show mixing and kneading large amounts of bread dough in tubs to use in their act to throw at each other. This was the first time in the history of the fair that it became necessary to hold two shows nightly after Wednesday to accommodate the crowds. The next year an addition was made to the grandstand.
After Mr. Beam brought shows for two years, Barns and Caruthers, the largest booking house in the world was hired. This company provides excellent shows for the fair to this day. Mr. Sam Levy, a veteran member of this company, is still active at the age of ninety. Last spring, Mr. Schrader was invited to attend a banquet held in Mr. Levy‟s honor at Chicago. Six hundred guests from all over the world were present, only two were invited from Michigan.
Weather made the news in 1940. It rained so constantly there was only one show at the fair and that was on Monday night. By Friday it had turned cold and a wet snow fell collapsing several tents. Since the week had been such a financial loss the show and carnival agreed to stay over until Sunday on a percentage basis. It rained Sunday too, so they moved out and the gates closed. After that discouraging experience there was some talk of leasing the grounds but this ideas was soon dropped and the fair went on as usual the next year.
A fair wouldn’t be a fair without rides and the Gooding Company has provided amusements for many years. Today there is a variety of equipment as compared to the three rides introduced at Centreville in the early 1920’s. The Gooding Company is the largest of its kind in the world. It is interesting to note that Mr. Gooding started out with a steam engine and a merry-go-round. It is also of interest to find that with all of the new and different space age rides the merry-go-round is still a best seller.
Today only a few of the original buildings remain on the fairgrounds. The size of the grounds has increased from 18 acres in 1877 to 105 acres in 1966. The sod racetrack is now just a memory and has long since been replaced by the clay track of today. Many feel we possess the fastest track in the state of Michigan and spectators come from great distances to see quality harness racing. The treasury this year has a balance of well over One hundred forty thousand dollars as opposed to $5.05 in 1925. The electricity consumed on the grounds during fair week now costs around $4,000.00 and lights the area like a city. This is a striking contrast to the few dim bulbs at the first night show. Well lighted and ventilated buildings are to be found on the grounds. Improvements are being made every year.
To say the very least, the progress in the last fifty years has been a true success story. When asked why the Centreville Fair has grown while, many others have decreased or failed, Mr. Schrader said, “Because many people have given willingly of their time and effort.”
Just a few years ago, the Centreville Fair was rated third among five award winners by the International Association of Fairs. This is without question a high honor and we of the Lions Club feel it was truly deserved. We take our hats off in a gesture of gratitude to all who have made the fair what it is today. We also wish the fair every success as it meets the challenges of the future.