MICHIGAN HISTORY SERIES : There’s evil in those county fairs

July 5, 1995
Contact: umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Covering everything from what the state should do for farmers to the cultivation of onions, artesian wells, milk sickness, maple sugar and how to make a husband happy, the Farmer’s Companion and Horticultural Gazette of 1854, part of the University of Michigan Bentley Library’s collection, also warned Michigan farmers of the evils of agricultural fairs.

“There can be no doubt that no Agricultural Fair passes over without some exhibitors of stock feeling dissatisfied, and thinking that they have not been fairly dealt with,” the publication exhorts. “We are not in the habit, in the west, of concealing our opinions; we speak right out; and thence hard things are said, and hard feelings engendered. This is the only practical evil that we know connected with such exhibits, and it is very important that it should be stopped as soon as possible.”

The Gazette doesn’t suggest that those of the West stop speaking, but rather that the judging of such agricultural exhibits be regulated. Nor does it suggest that voicing opinions, speaking the truth, being honest and forthright be supplanted with hedging, withholding opinions, or lying. But it does suggest that guidelines be set for judges.

In 1854, livestock judges did so on “personal tastes.” Admittedly some judges preferred full-blooded specimens and others “graded” stock depending on what they were most familiar with. And there were some farmers who really preferred a “coarse animal to the finest bred one,” the Gazette said. The crux of this whole “evil” business is that the publication wanted Michigan fairs judged as such fairs were judged in England, with rules on which the judgment is formed and points given for requirements. It promoted the need for models of “ideal or perfect” animal specimens, against which the entries in local fairs could be judged.

Eventually those models were established for livestock judging in Michigan, but those, too, have changed over the years.

“Hogs were judged 30 years ago on the amount of lard they could produce,” says John Evert, the 4-H youth agent at Michigan State University’s Washtenaw County Extension office. “Now the market wants hogs that are longer and leaner. The ideal animal has changed with changes in our dietary habits.”

Judges at today’s agricultural fairs do judge against a standard of perfection established for each breed, and there are opportunities for judges to receive additional training and education. But each judge is still different, Evert says, as are the standards of perfection. Standards have been established for the various breeds of animals as well as for a breeding class and market class for each animal, each class with its own set of guidelines towards perfection.

“Preventing hard feelings will not be the only benefit,” the Gazette said of the changes it proposed. “More kindness and confidence will be felt; and above all it will be a decided advantage to us in teaching as what to purchase or how to breed; as well as in saving us from those who would palm inferior animals upon us as the best.”

The Bentley Historical Library is open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.