The Fair-est of Them All
Armada’s annual get-together boasts traditions unchanged for a century and a half
Agrarian Roots: An 1875 diploma boasts the “Best and Largest Display of Farm Implements.”
Photographs by Hayden Stinebaugh
It’s been around even longer than you think, with a history older than the electric light bulb, the Kentucky Derby, and the telephone.
“There’s always been a fair,” says Esther English, curator of the Armada Area Historical Society. “Even before it was put on record by the state of Michigan.”
That was in October 1872, when the first official Fair of the Armada Agricultural Society was held just outside the Village of Armada, a northern Macomb County town that had only organized as a municipality three years earlier.
The Armada Fair — where 800 participants competed for a total of $300 in prize money — gave name to an event that had already been around a while. For the previous dozen years or so, farmers had gathered for three days each fall to show off livestock, sell some produce, and try to out-plow each other in spirited contests.
At a basic level, little has changed heading into the 143rd Armada Fair, set to kick off Aug. 17.
“We’re a true country fair,” says General Manager Mary Straubel. “That’s our slogan, and we’re proud of that. There aren’t many places you can still see agricultural and horticultural exhibits, or the animals and the tractor pull. We still do that all these years later.”
The elements of what AAA calls “The Best Little Country Fair in Michigan” have remained remarkably consistent: A portrait of farm life framed by carnival rides and entertainment, exhibitions, and competitions. Arguably the biggest change over the decades has been the inclusion of mechanical horsepower alongside the real thing. (Hook magazine listed the tractor-pull as the longest-running this side of the Mississippi.)
If tradition seems to hang from every beam of every barn, that’s no accident: It’s Armada, where history, community, and the fair go together like elephant ears and a hot summer day.
‘A Community Family Reunion’
More than 65,000 visitors crossed the fair’s gates last year. Some locals may dread the annual wear and tear on lawns and fences, the noise of engines and animals, and beer-tent fun, but it’s the fair and most wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“I call it a community family reunion,” says Ken Goike, president of the Armada Fair Board. “You walk around and see the people you grew up with and went to school with ... they’re good memories.”
Goike, state representative for Macomb’s 33rd District, heads a 21-member board elected by the Agricultural Society to oversee the fair. A typical story of generations-spanning service, Goike’s father, an uncle, and a cousin or two have all put in their due time at and for the fair.
“Keeping everybody involved is the secret to its success,” Goike says. “Year after year it’s consistent. Even if you’ve gone away from the area you can always go back to it.”
The reunion is a true community effort that affects nearly every resident. Hundreds of 4-H members and Future Farmers of America exhibit and compete each year; the total number of prizes and scholarships over the generations is incalculable.
Student involvement is hardly limited to agricultural endeavors. Goike says the history of technology and science — from farm equipment to robotics — is as strong a presence as bales of hay. Grow up in Armada and you’ll work the fair somehow, he says, whether parking cars, serving refreshments, or putting farm-earned lessons to the test.
“It’s a good, positive experience,” Goike says. “There’s some deep history here to keep and that’s one of the things we try to do.”
‘A little bit of hard work’
“When I was in school we cleaned up the grandstands and stuff,” says Rosey Gaier, one of the newest Fair Board members. “If we don’t care about our community, who will?”
Therein lies the spirit that tourists may not fully digest along with their chili dogs: The seemingly-quaint Miss Armada and her Court fulfilling service projects as they do year-round; school groups earning uniform or equipment money; nonprofits making sure another season of assistance will be available to those in need.
Gaier — a third-generation member of the Gaier Farms family — says the fair has never veered from its cornerstone missions of youth, agriculture, education, and sense of civic duty.
“Farming is hard work,” Gaier says. “And there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of hard work. Kids need to learn that.”
Small towns like Armada are a fading breed, as are local traditions that span decades and centuries. The fair remains true to its roots and as genuine as blue-ribbon prizes given to animals and baked goods, to the Homemaker of the Year and other outstanding citizens, to antique farm equipment, and winners of pie- or corn-eating contests.
Add a rodeo and demolition derby, and you’re on to something special.
Many communities have fairs, but “this is the real deal,” says English, who cherishes teenage memories of pre-World War II fairs. “Gypsy caravans” parked on the same grounds; circus acts paraded through the same streets for all to see.
It’s the fair, she says, and it hasn’t changed much because it doesn’t have to.
“It’s sweet, and it’s safe,” English says. “And it still carries traditions that were in place 140-some years ago.”
For a schedule of events at the 143rd Armada Fair, Aug. 17-23, visit armadafair.org
Turning Tragedy to Tribute
A more somber anniversary is being marked in Armada — a tragic day when the village found itself in a rare public spotlight.
The murder of Jennifer Millsap’s 14-year-old daughter, April, in late July 2014 stunned the community, which in turn banded together as only small towns can.
“People are still talking about it,” Millsap says. “It was a big wound for the town when it happened, but it’s starting to heal.”
Pink ribbons decorated the village; more than 400 bicyclists mounted up to “Take Back the Trail,” a statement of ownership at the Macomb-Orchard Trail where April had been found; and the fairgrounds featured a floral tribute arranged by Rosey Gaier, an Armada Fair Board member.
“This is a strong community,” says Gaier, who plans a similar display this year. “In an event like that we come together and support the family.”
Each small tribute reflected a collective mourning that shaped the landscape. The latest, the April Millsap Memorial Garden, was dedicated in June next to the trail where a little girl had loved to walk her dog. Organizers say it’s a way to keep April’s memory alive in a positive way.
“I just felt that Jennifer needed a lot of support, and so did the community,” says Julie Risch, who helped plan the project along with gardener Jean Persely. Risch launched a successful crowd-funding campaign to cover costs and maintenance. Supplies, plants, flowers, and volunteer hours poured in with equal enthusiasm.
Supporters of the project included Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who said monuments like the garden can be a valuable part of healing. “People need to talk about it and also take back what was theirs,” Hackel said.
Millsap rang a symbolic bell at the garden’s groundbreaking, and said everything she — and April — had loved about Armada remains on display.
“We didn’t really know too many people. April knew more than I did,” says Millsap, who described herself as somewhat shy and quiet. “With all the pink ribbons and everything when it happened, I guess she touched more people than I knew she had.”