By Brad Flory
Anyone driving past the massive construction site at the Jackson County fairgrounds is forgiven for drawing false conclusions.
“The fair is canceled this year, right?” someone recently asked me.
The Jackson County Fair will be Aug. 4-10. Except for the new American 1 Event Center, construction is supposed to finish in time for the fair, and the work is said to be on schedule.
An extreme makeover is underway that will give the Jackson County Fair a whole new look and layout. My prediction: This will be the best thing that has happened to the fair in a very long time.
Thirty-four years ago, I attended my first Jackson County Fair and thought it was the best county fair I’d seen anywhere in Michigan. With apologies to friends in Hillsdale, I still think so.
This was the fair that Herman Gumper built, and if you didn’t know that, Herman would tell you.
Gumper, who died in 2015, was fair manager from 1961 to 1993. He really took charge in 1959 on a committee assigned to revive what was then a ramshackle and dingy event. Herman could be stubborn, headstrong, and combative, but the man got things done. He he quickly gave the fair a new look and image to make it attractive, safe, and fun for families.
When I met him, Gumper pointed out special touches at his fair. He was proud of all the nice-looking flowers. He was proud that fair-goers walked on asphalt instead of tramping through mud and dust. He made sure fair patrons had some cool spots where they could rest on hot August days. He told stories about big stars, the likes of Bob Hope and Johnny Cash, he booked to boost the fair’s entertainment profile.
It’s been Herman Gumper’s fair for six decades, and nothing much has changed since my first visit in 1985. Now, suddenly, everything will look different. We’ll barely recognize the place.
Viewing the construction site, the first thing I notice is unobstructed sight lines. It never struck me until they were gone, but utility poles and fencing around the old horse-racing track made the space seem cluttered and cut up. Some rough edges are probably inevitable at first, but the new fair layout should be more attractive and easier to navigate.
For a while, I wondered what Herman Gumper would say about all this. I wondered if maybe he’s spinning in his grave. Now I think I know better.
First, last and always, Gumper wanted his fair to look nice. This should make it look nicer. Perhaps he would have been delighted to bulldoze the racetrack to create his own ideal space long ago.
Yes, I imagine Herman would approve of what Jackson County is doing to his fair. He’d probably insist that he could do it better, but that’s often the way with people who get things done.