A county fair of one type or another in Van Buren County can trace its beginnings back more than 150 years. Although it was not known as a county fair, the first mention of a fair came during the summer of 1851 when the Van Buren Agricultural Society was formed. Jay R. Monroe served as its president.
That fall, the first fair was held at the courthouse square in Paw Paw. The stock were tied to trees and the courtroom was used as a floral hall. In 1852, the fair moved to the Village of Lawrence, south of the Lawrence United Methodist Church. During 1853-54, the fair returned to Paw Paw. In 1855, the fair once again made its way back to Lawrence.
Through the work of many people from the western part of the county, lumber was furnished and sheds, stalls, and stands were erected on the site of the Lawrence Village Park.
Once again, the fair was on the move. This time back to Paw Paw. Peter Gremps, an early settler of Paw Paw, leased land to the society, where a fair continued until 1870.
Having secured enough funds, the society then purchased 20 acres of land about a half-mile west of Paw Paw. Through hard work and determination, in two years, the property was valued at $10,000. While the fair continued in Paw Paw, a Horse Fair Association was established in Lawrence, where a 25-acre tract of land was leased from Holland B. Clark for its use. The grounds were fenced, a track was graded, and a floral hall was constructed at a cost of $9,000.
During the next two years, a fair was held in Lawrence. However, with insufficient receipts and overburdening expenses, the fair was discontinued.
It was five years later, in 1871, when a group of people met at Chadwick’s Hall in Lawrence to form a new association. The Paw Paw Valley Agricultural Society promoted the encouragement and advancement of agriculture, manufacturers and mechanics arts.
The society used the grounds of the Horse Fair Association and the first fair was held Oct. 11-13, 1871. By 1877, the townships of Watervliet, Pipestone, and Bainbridge in Berrien County, and Volinia, Wayne and Silver Creek in Cass County were included in the new society.
In 1912, the Van Buren Agricultural and Horticultural Society was organized in Hartford, and the first fair was held there the following year. The Depression and World War years, brought a halt to the annual fairs. In the 1940s, the old fair grounds, now the Hartford Motor Speedway, was used as a POW camp.
During the 1950s, a fair was held at several sites around the county that included Lawrence, Lawton and Bloomingdale. From the late 1950s to 1969, the fair continued at the Hartford site, when in 1970, a new site was secured.
In March of that year, a group of fair officials and an Extension specialist from Michigan State University surveyed the land known as the Van Buren County Poor Farm. The services of a land use planner saw the development of a master plan for the site. Through an agreement with the Van Buren County Board of Commissioners and the Fair Board, a long-term lease was approved .
During April and May, construction crews moved thousands of cubic yards of dirt and the first building, the present Commercial Exhibit building, was constructed. As the fair moves into the 21st Century, changes and improvements continue to be made.
This growth is the result of planning and leadership from the Fair Board and the work of countless volunteers and businesses from throughout the county, 4-H leaders and members, 4-H Horse Council members and parents, Small Market Animal Committee, Junior Livestock Producers Association members and directors, The Draft Horse Club, Farm Bureau members, Sheriff’s Posse, and many others.
Together, they continue a tradition of preserving what was started more than 150 years ago by a group of people determined to promote the best of what Van Buren county has to offer through livestock and exhibits of all kinds, whether it be floral or garden, woodworking or baking.