Fairer state

Aug 16, 2006 at 12:00 am

Regular readers of this newspaper are distinguished by a certain sophistication, united by a shared desire to be kept aware of the latest and strangest in the arts and politics. Yet no matter how alertly progressive, black-clad or bleeding-edge hip you may be, you are never, ever, too cool for the butter cow. Not since Moses destroyed the golden calf has there been a more glorious example of bovine beauty than the 330 pounds of perishable monument to animal husbandry one can find each year at the Michigan state fair.

But old buttery Bessie is just one of a multitude of attractions that draws the crowds from far and wide for the end-of-summer blowout that gives citified folk the opportunity to live out their agrarian dreams.

Michigan, you'll note, boasts the nation's original State Fair, which debuted in 1849 and spent its first half-century roaming city to city, leading to a heated yearly contest between municipalities eager to flaunt their hospitality skills. The fair has been at its current Detroit location — the corner of Woodward Avenue and Eight Mile Road — since 1905, when department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson and partners donated the 135-acre parcel of land to give the event a permanent home. In subsequent years, the grounds expanded to their present 164 acres — ample room to house agricultural exhibits, a full-size rodeo coliseum, the world's largest stove and a stage massive enough to showcase the dark lord of theatrical rock himself, Alice Cooper.

The big-name music acts are only part of a fair that offers countless diversions, from the prosaic to the bizarre. Daily events will include a hog-calling contest, dance team face-offs and a cheerleading contest that'll keep the pom-poms flying.

Better yet will be the second annual dog agility competition, an immense challenge featuring 50 weight classes of canines making like four-legged Olympians and jumping as high and fast as their little paws will take them. Paul Bunyan aspirants will be delighted that the Great Lakes Timber Show is putting on three shows a day (four on weekends), highlighting ax-throwing, saw-carving, log-rolling and all the finest in wood-sports excitement that a body can handle.

For a more hands-on approach, take the wee one to the Farmer for a Day area, where kids can simulate seed-planting, egg-gathering and any kind of farm activity short of tobacco-juice-spitting. Who can resist the charms of the Miracle of Life exhibit? It's a spectacle famous for reducing rational, college-educated people into blubbering piles of incoherent joy at the sight of baby chicks hatching. Those with stronger stomachs will be able to gaze upon the live births of pigs, lambs and even cattle, if grand old Elsie isn't too shy to give you a peek at her nether regions as she plops out a young'un.

If the sloppy, circle-of-life workings are a touch gross for you, there are carnival-style entertainments to amuse and befuddle as you stroll along the promenade. There's outdoor theater, Safety Stan the Fireman and the Roving Puppetone Rockers, which are oversized marionettes that throw in anti-drug messages between their Muppet-like antics. A curious fantasy element has crept into this year's proceedings with the debut of the Fallen Giants, a 7,000-square-foot maze that leads visitors through the huge entrails of a recently deceased brute.

Carnival games, wild, nausea-inducing amusement rides and the joys of stuffing your face with greasy elephant ears are the haps available at this year's Michigan State Fair. And if you aren't too tired, sunburned and broken-down by a long day of outdoor exertion, there are the musical headliners ready to rock your world. In addition to the Coop, there'll be a diverse lineup, from R&B crooner Ginuwine to retro hair-metal heroes Twisted Sister. Tweens and teens can bop to Raven Symone, fogies can dig Three Dog Night and country lovers can scuff their dancing boots to Montgomery Gentry. Yes, the state fair is unabashedly corny and full of homespun frolic, but it also represents a pleasant peninsula diverse enough to include some agricultural bliss and the ever-smooth urban soul of the legendary Morris Day and the Time. All this and a damn cow carved out of butter.


Wednesday, Aug. 23-Monday, Sept. 4, at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, 1120 State Fair Ave., Detroit; 313-369-8250, ext. 54 or visit michigan.gov/mistatefair.

Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]