150th annual Oceana County Fair offers 2 carnival weekends and much more.

August 3, 2021

150th annual Oceana County Fair offers 2 carnival weekends and much more.

HART — The Oceana County Fair returns to its full, normal experience later this month after last year’s scaled-down version due to COVID-19.

An exciting change this year for the 150th annual fair is the carnival will be at the Oceana County Fairgrounds two straight weekends.

Elliott’s Amusements will have the midway set up with fun rides and games the weekend before the fair — Aug. 18-21 — and then during the fair — Aug. 24-28. Food vendors will also offer their tasty carnival cuisine of cotton candy, elephant ears, corndogs and more.

In addition to the extended carnival, the fair will offer improved fairgrounds and a full slate of 4-H events. Fair favorites return, such as the talent show, harness horse racing, a tractor pull, a demolition derby and much more. Visit www.oceanafair.com or check out the fair’s YouTube Channel for details. Take a look at the 2021 fair schedule at the bottom of this article.

Blackmer Construction workers work on renovations to the grandstands at the Oceana County Fairgrounds in Hart.

The Oceana County Fair has a rich history. In 1870, a group of Oceana County residents gathered to create the Oceana County Agricultural Society. The society hosted its first fair in Elbridge Township in 1871 and relocated to the present site at the corner of Polk Road and State Street in 1874. Over the years, the fair expanded to create the fairgrounds we enjoy today.

Historically, fairgrounds were known as “driving parks,” usually found adjacent to railroad tracks, and served as a place where horses were trained and stabled to provide transportation for travelers perusing timber tracts, and in Oceana County’s case, for horse racing. Railroads were crucial for carrying fruits and vegetables grown in the area to markets. The railroad in Hart would carry produce grown in Oceana County along the Lake Michigan shore to Chicago. 

Oceana County Fair’s horse racing track is one of the oldest continually used tracks in Michigan. Samuel A. Browne, a member of the Oceana County Agricultural Society and the driving force behind bringing the railroad to Pentwater with a spur to Hart, was known for his prized trotters and pacers nationally. One champion, Peter the Great, is immortalized with a monument on the grounds of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Browne was a friend of Abraham Lincoln, having driven him through Illinois during his bid for the presidency.

The landmark structure on the Oceana County fairgrounds is its grandstand. Originally constructed in 1895, the grandstand burned in 1915, the victim of an errant cigarette stub during a baseball game. When the structure was rebuilt, the grandstand was expanded to nearly three times the size of the original structure and is now over 104 years old.

In 2020, the Oceana County Fair received a Capital Improvement Grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to repair, renovate and beautify the grandstand area. Decades of decay and weather damage have been stripped away and structural repairs are underway. A new vertical steel façade will go up soon, and the grandstand seating and walkways are being inspected and repaired. A portion of the grandstand that used to house horses will be reopened to the public for the first time in more than 75 years. A new gathering area, “The Stables,” with a covered roof patio area and tables and chairs, will be available for food and beverage service during grandstand events.

Future plans to add beer and wine sales in the grandstands are in the works and eventually online gambling for horse racing via phone apps, said Oceana County Agricultural Society President Paul Erickson.

“The work on the grandstands is the result of a grant the society won from the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development capital improvement grant cycle of 2021,” said Erickson. “We were awarded $30,000 of which our commitment was $15,000. Approximately $45,000 is being reinvested in the grandstands.”

The grandstand capital improvement fund was created through a donation from the Hart Lions Club which is a fund through the Community Foundation for Oceana County with a 501(c)(3) benefit. The Lions donated $500, and donations to that fund now total $10,000. There will be a capital fundraiser during the fair to raise more funds for grandstand improvements, said Erickson.

“We’re able to celebrate our 150th fair in part because we did conduct our virtual show and sale last year of our animals and projects and also held a virtual fair with the Kenny Rogers band and the harness racing.”

In 2020, even though in-person fair activities were cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Oceana County Fair offered many events and activities virtually. Check out this video of the fair’s 2020 tractor pull event.

Last year’s harness racing was a major success, said Erickson. “We had two of the fastest horses in Michigan.”

“We’ve got 4 p.m. post times for Monday’s and Tuesday’s harness racing rather than the earlier noon start times. We’re hoping to reinvigorate harness racing for the public to watch. We’re hoping more people can come out and watch old fashioned harness racing at its best.”

Harness racing schedules in the future could offer races “under the lights” in the evenings. 

A popular event, the demolition derby, will offer two show times this year — at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Fair organizers and the fair community look forward to a “back to normal” fair season, gathering on the fairgrounds to celebrate 150 years of the Oceana County Fair.

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