The Way It Was – Michigan State Fair

Miss Michigan State Fair Lila Verslype poses with a calf called Playboy
michigan state fair
Michigan State Fair photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University (The Detroit News)

1958 Although summer technically doesn’t end until the third week of September, many consider the close of August and the resumption of another school year the season’s farewell. However, for decades, there was a reason to look forward to August and early September: the Michigan State Fair. Off Woodward between State Fair Street and Eight Mile Road, the fairgrounds offered a panoply of entertainment, from top-drawer live acts and rides to contests of all stripes, including the plumpest blueberry pie, the porkiest pig, and the loudest husband-hollering.

Amid bales of hay, here is 19-year-old Lila Verslype, Miss Michigan State Fair of Harper Woods, with a calf called Playboy. In 1966, Motown’s Temptations, whose razor-sharp choreography was nearly as alluring as their vocals, performed five shows. One warm summer night, my father and I, along with my two older sisters, attended the packed show after walking to the fairgrounds from our Palmer Park-area home. I stood on a bench to get a better view.

Two hits from the group, “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” were released that year. The fair’s attendance also hit its zenith in 1966, with 1.2 million visitors. Gradually, though, fewer people came to the fair, and in 2009, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm refused to fund it. The fair wasn’t held for the next two years but was revived in 2012 at Novi’s Suburban Collection Showplace.

This year it will be held Sept. 1-5. One year-round attraction at the old fairgrounds was the world’s largest stove, built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and moved to the fairgrounds from East Jefferson in 1965. Alas, in 2011, the stove was destroyed, apparently by lightning. In 2020, Amazon announced it would build a distribution center at the fairgrounds, and several buildings were slated for demolition, including the century-old Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum. I spent many winter Sunday afternoons skating on the Coliseum’s glass-smooth ice rink, but the building was also used for hockey games, concerts, and other events. The bandshell was also scheduled to be razed, but preservationists sounded a hue and cry. Plans are for it to be moved south to Palmer Park.

This story is from the August 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.