Arts & Entertainment, Food Service & Agriculture, and Travel & Tourism

Berlin Fair completes its 160th year

June 12, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Berlin Fair
Jim Kishman, left, and Russ Preston are involved with the Berlin Fair Association. Photo by Michael Buck

The Berlin Fair in Marne, an annual event since 1855, survived a near name change in World War I and, more recently, moved to June because Julys were getting too hot — perhaps a sign of global warming.

And this year, for the first time ever, there was no live poultry on display in the livestock barns because of bird flu precautions.

On June 1 the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development canceled all 2015 poultry exhibitions throughout the state to help prevent spread of the avian flu. Last week the Michigan DNR and MDARD announced the state’s first confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N2 in the state. The virus, found in free-ranging Canada geese in Macomb County, also can infect domestic poultry such as chickens, turkeys, quail and geese.

“Should this virus impact Michigan’s domestic poultry, it doesn’t just impact the chicken you buy for your home. It has ripple effects such as the eggs used to make a wide variety of food products,” said MDARD spokesperson Jennifer Holton.

She said MDARD has taken proactive, preventive measures such as the cancellation of the poultry shows “to prevent the comingling of birds from various locations across the state. Whether you are a small or hobby poultry owner or a commercial operation, we all have an important role to play to protect the health of Michigan’s poultry.”

The Berlin Fair Association — volunteers who run the nonprofit week-long event each summer — claim theirs is the longest continuously operating fair in Michigan. Association president Jim Kishman said unlike other fairs in Michigan, Berlin did not cease operations during World War II.

History buffs may know the connection between the small town of Marne and the fair. The town was originally named Berlin, but anti-German sentiment swept the United States during World War I, and the town fathers changed the name to Marne, inspired by the Second Battle of the Marne in France in 1918, which marked the beginning of the end of the invading German armies.

By then the Berlin Fair was already well over 60 years old and quite well-known in the region. The business-minded management team decided there would be no tinkering with the name.

According to Lisa Reiff, executive director of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions, there are 86 local and county fairs in Michigan, and most of them are members of MAFE. The association has always worked closely with the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and MAFE members include businesses involved with the fair industry such as the carnivals, insurance companies and other types of suppliers and support services.

Fairs are organized in one of two ways established by Michigan law, but all are nonprofit organizations. Act 80 of 1855 established fairs produced by horticultural societies, and Act 11 in 1929 defines county fairs, which are controlled and managed by county governments.

“The vast majority of them are an Act 80,” said Reiff, and the Berlin Fair is “a local fair, not a county” fair.

Reiff said the fairs do not report their financial information to MAFE, so she is not sure how much revenue they typically generate or invest each year, but she noted a lot of fairs are run entirely by volunteers.

Last year in Michigan more than 4.5 million people attended fairs, and the volunteers donated more than 659,000 hours, according to MAFE.

Agricultural youth organizations such as 4-H have long been a key element at fairs. The young people spend a lot of time on projects on their parents’ or relatives’ farms, raising and caring for farm animals that will be exhibited and judged at the fair. Some, such as hogs and beef cattle, are then auctioned off, typically bought by prominent local businesses. Prize-winning 4-H animals at the Berlin Fair are featured each year in large photo displays at the Meijer store in Standale.

Reiff said that in 2014, livestock auctions at Michigan fairs generated $18.5 million for the young owners of the animals.

Kishman has been president of the Berlin Fair Association for three years. He told the Business Journal last week, a few days before the fair wrapped up on June 13, that he and the other volunteers are hoping for an attendance of 25,000 this year. He noted kids under 10 get in free so they aren’t counted among visitors who buy admission tickets.

“Weather affects everything that goes on” at a fair, said Kishman, and that’s why they recently made a big change in scheduling the Berlin Fair, moving it from July to June. For many years, it was held the third week in July, but Kishman said that, according to WOOD TV weather anchor Bill Steffen, the third week in July has historically been the hottest week of the year.

“This is our second year in June,” said Kishman. “Before that, we had four years of record heat” in July. “That keeps people away, and it’s hard on the animals,” he said.

Another major component of most fairs in Michigan are the carnival rides. This year, Berlin Fair had midway rides operated by Elliott’s Amusements from Mason, Michigan.

The carnival companies pay a percentage of their ticket sales to the fairs. There are several companies based in Michigan and all are family-owned businesses, according to Kishman. In fact, he said many of the Michigan carnival companies “are all related somehow.”

Skerbeck Entertainment Group in Fennville says its roots go back 160 years, and another traveling carnival company is Arnold Amusements in Traverse City, which provides midway rides in three southern states as well as Michigan. It was founded in 1980 by Ivan Arnold, who started working in the carnival business at the county fair in Traverse City when he was 9, according to the company’s website.

Key support for fairs comes from local businesses.

“Nothing lasts this long (as the Berlin Fair) without the local businesses giving in-kind services and monetary funds. Dollars are always needed and, of course, the volunteer base is huge,” Kishman said.

“Community support is what keeps the fair going,” he said. “Festivals seem to come and go.”

Some fairs in Michigan are struggling financially, according to Kishman, but Berlin Fair is “a solvent fair.”

Years ago there was state and county funding for fairs, but that dried up, he said.

Although they are nonprofit enterprises, fairs clearly generate sales tax revenue for the state. Reiff said MAFE figures if every person attending a Michigan fair spends $10, the sales tax going to the state is about $2.5 million or more.

Reiff seems to have been destined for a career involving fairs. She said she was five days old when she attended her first fair. Her father was a farmer and is now general manager at the Oakland County Fair. She and her siblings usually showed their sheep at seven county fairs and three state fairs each summer. Reiff, who is in her early 30s, had a champion lamb a few years ago that Meijer bought at a fair auction.

The Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair in Novi in early September really is not a state endeavor — it is privately owned. Reiff said there is no official state fair in Michigan sponsored by the state government.

Overall, Michigan still has “strong attendance at the fairs in our state,” said Reiff.

In her role at MAFE, she went to 40 fairs last year.

“There’s something different at every one. I’m looking forward to going to a bunch of new ones this year,” said Reiff.

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