The Most Popular Fair on Earth
is like Deor's Lament.
When I was in college, I lived very near “The Most Popular Fair on Earth.”
It probably wasn’t the most popular fair on earth—the slogan, or so rumor had it, was the result of some good old-fashioned statistic baking sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. At some point Hillsdale, Michigan had had more of its county at its fair than any other county had at its respective fair, anywhere on earth—so far as they could ascertain. The accomplishment is still emblazoned on the side of the fair barn, where I could read it every time I drove to the dentist.
The first time I went to that fair I was fresh off the plane from polished, industrialized Southern California, where the county fair involved poetry contests and ocean breezes and Bob Marley-themed merchandise tents. This fair was very different. The “birthing tent” made a particularly strong impression, though this seventeen-year-old city girl was extremely relieved to find that none of the animals there were actively giving birth. There was a man selling hot peanuts in the shell like we were on a Victorian street in a Dickens novel. There were countless candy-colored, rickety rides that had been brought in on trucks and hastily assembled, I assume like pop-up camping tents.
The fairgrounds has a variety of permanent buildings—a large barn for animals, another barn for elaborately decorated construction-paper murals from the art teachers at various local elementary schools (and also a lot of honey and beeswax), and “the grange,” whose purpose I have never fully ascertained. At night as the lights went down the air was slightly crisp and you could eat a caramel apple while a group of veterans sang patriotic songs and the garish lights of the carnival rides whirred in the background.
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky “called himself a writer ‘possessed by nostalgia for the present day.’” This is what the Most Popular Fair on Earth has always been for me. Moving to rural Michigan from Southern California never felt like a move from one part of a country to another. As we all said to one another at the time, it felt like moving to a different country—but it wasn’t quite like that. It was like moving back in time—but it wasn’t quite like that, either. It was like stepping into a slightly altered time-stream, where the world had aged more gracefully in some ways and more garishly in others.
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