By Samuel Love
Fair time in Lake County, Indiana brings repeated tellings of two myths about a small kettle pond at the south end of the fairgrounds. The first is that a man drowned here, only to wash up on the shores of Cedar Lake some three miles southwest, which supposedly gives evidence of an underground tunnel connecting the two bodies of water. Geologic easily dismisses this myth as impossible. The soft, sandy till deposited by the melting glacier that shaped the gently rolling terrain of southern Lake County some fourteen thousand years ago would quickly collapse any subterranean tunnel.
The second myth regards the very name we use for the body of water, Fancher Lake, implying that this was once the property of a Fancher family. A man named Fancher did attempt to claim the land in 1834, as did a man named Butler in 1832. Neither of these white squatters ever held the legal title though. Under the Treaty of Tippecanoe, signed October 26, 1832, the land remained with the Pottawatomie and ultimately would become the property of a Pottawatomie woman, Mis Sink Gu Guah, who sold the land for $800 in 1856. Twenty years later, and after another failed claim attempt by Fancher, Lake County Commissioners purchased the land for $3,975 and transferred it to the Lake County Agricultural Society, which has staged the county fair at this location ever since.
My lifetime has seen the decline of bowling alleys, skating rinks, and even shopping malls and movie theaters. Yet here, in Indiana’s most heavily industrialized county, the annual farm and livestock exhibition staged by the Lake County Agricultural Society remains one of the region’s top social attractions—and one of its longest-running traditions. The fair was first held in 1852, and has returned every year since, with the exception of gaps around the Civil War, World War I, and one year during the Great Depression. Its mission remains largely unchanged: to educate the public about agriculture and to promote the latest techniques in farm improvement.
The lake is the first stop on my customary walk around the fairgrounds. It’s a chance to catch a cool morning breeze off the water and enjoy the shade from a stand of grand old oaks atop the south hill before entering the heat and noise of the Midway. There are no grand elevated views from which one can contemplate the whole of Lake County, Indiana, as one could for Cook County, Illinois from the top of the Sears Tower or the Hancock Building. Mis Sink Gu Guah’s hill, a mere fifteen feet above the lake, makes do.
In 1947, John Barlow Martin saw in the Indiana State Fair a vantage to interpret the state’s history. When it comes to the Lake County Fair, we can read our history and meanings in the exhibits, the grandstand shows, the food—even the grounds themselves. For me fair time is a chance to see our local history in action; to observe the ways the diverse communities here relate (or don’t) to one another and how the different communities of the county are represented (or not).
As the county has changed over time, so too has the county fair. Each change has been reflected in the addition of some new element we would think of as eternal, or the subtraction of one we would soon collectively forget. The fair is as much a reminder of Northwest Indiana’s pre-industrial past and agriculture’s continued presence here as it is a history of distinct communities (industrial cities in the north, suburban towns in the middle, and a rural south county) that often seem worlds apart socially and politically, but are intimately linked by economics and geography.
County fairs in North America trace their lineage to an 1807 event in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when Elkanah Watson displayed two Merino sheep, imported from Spain, in the town square. Merinos had only been introduced to the United States four years earlier, and the event attracted such an enthusiastic audience that Watson grew and formalized the idea over the next few years, holding his first “Cattle Show” in 1809 and, in 1811, founding the Berkshire County Agricultural Society. These popular gatherings broke the isolation of rural life and offered educational opportunities unavailable to farmers in the young nation. Interest in agricultural societies spread quickly across the Midwest and the South over the next two decades, and with them the annual exhibition, or county fair.
This is the model upon which the Lake County Agricultural Society was founded, on August 27, 1851. The first Lake County Fair was held on October 28 the following year. The one-day event featured sixty-nine exhibits competing for $100 in premium awards. To our modern eyes the first fair would have been about as exciting as a community resource room. Today’s festival displays some four thousand three hundred exhibits, is organized into nearly three dozen departments, and occurs over ten days. (Eleven if you count the Thursday free preview night, which set a new attendance record in 2019.)
So much of what has sustained the fair has often had little or nothing to with agriculture. In the late nineteenth century, as village life developed in the county, trotting and horse-racing around Fancher Lake drew in the townsfolk, increasing gate receipts and allowing for more premium offerings and a better fair. The arrival of heavy industry in the region—Hammond and the Hammond Meat Packing Plant in 1869; Standard Oil and the community of Whiting in 1889;East Chicago in 1893; and the mightiest of them all, Gary, in 1906—didn’t disrupt agriculture here. Quite the opposite. These cities and the proximity to Chicago created new markets for south county farmers, allowing Lake County to emerge as an important producer of beef and dairy in Indiana.
But the tastes of this new urban population, soon followed by a suburban population even farther removed from farming, had to be considered in the planning and execution of the fair, balanced with an adherence to an agricultural mission and tempered by economic reality. I see that balance in the popular entertainment choices over the years. Before competition from indoor theaters like the Star Plaza in Merrillville and economic changes that made booking major-name musical acts financially untenable, the Lake County Fair was an important stop near Chicago on the summer touring circuit. Acts ranging from Duke Ellington to Minnie Pearl, BB King to the Beach Boys, have graced the grandstand.
Today’s Midway boasts some thirty carnival rides. (For context, the fair was already in its sixty-fifth year when the Ferris Wheel was introduced in 1917.) And motorsports have supplanted live music as the top grandstand money-maker. Hammond-reared humorist Jean Shepherd observed that “[d]irt-track racing is as much a part of an Indiana county fair as applesauce, pumpkins and pig judging.” Recalling a visit during his Depression-era youth, he states “we were in the stands, immersed in the roaring mob that had come from miles around to cheer the mayhem and carnage on the dirt oval below.”
Yet I think there is still much in today’s Lake County Fair that Watson would recognize as a natural extension of his original intentions. Monster trucks, the mouse game, and the merry-go-round would strike an Improvement-minded Yankee farmer like Watson as idle diversion. I’m not sure I could explain the cultural relevance of the plush Rasta Banana I won in 2014. I won a plush Poop Emoji the following year, which I bet the Yankee farmer would see as a fitting reminder of the importance of manuring. The walls of canned goods and quilts in the Fine Arts Building, the educational displays created by youth and displayed in the 4-H Building, the horse and livestock shows (which makes up the majority of programming at the fair), all point to the centrality of agriculture in a prosperous and technologically advanced society.
Rick Gianni, who wrote a history of the Lake County Fair on its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 2002, explained that “as the generations became further removed from everyday farm life, people no longer had personal experience with livestock production.” Working the fair in 2003 and ’04 helped me to see the patterns and rhythms of a world different from my own. In some ways I came to feel if the whole spectacle was really built around serving those competing in the animal and livestock shows. If the amusements aren’t perhaps set up so as to keep us town and city-folk mostly out of their way.
Agriculture is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when someone brings up Indiana’s most industrialized county. Most people probably think of pollution and steels mills. Political corruption also comes quickly to the minds of residents. Our neighbors in Illinois often visit for legal fireworks, casino gambling, and cheap cigarettes. Lake County farms account for one percent of Indiana’s total agricultural production. Most of what is grown here are soybeans and corn for animal feed. Only seven percent of Lake County producers sell directly to consumers, and only four percent of the county’s population is designated rural.
Still, Lake County’s first fifty years of written history are those of an agricultural county. The number of people living in Lake County’s rural areas is larger than fifty-two of Indiana’s ninety counties. More than a third of Lake County’s total acreage is farmed. Drive south on any major north-side highway and see for yourself. When you reach the point where the subdivisions end you are near the county’s geographic middle. It’s all farmland until the Kankakee River. For now, anyway.
In the Heritage Hall, near the gourd identification chart, a Farm Bureau sign reads NO FARMS NO FOOD. This slogan, commonly seen on bumper stickers and t-shirts since my youth, is further elaborated in a display of modern and antique farm tools in the adjacent room. It is one of the few displays that offers any sort of historical context or interpretation. Among the saws, awls, clamps, and scythes are two plows, one of modern steel with rubber-tipped handles, the other of wood frame. Patriotic bunting frames the true centerpiece, a large piece of hand-painted text hung at eye-level:
Of all the tools that man has used since the dawn of time to raise himself above the level of the brutes, there is none so great as the plow. Without the plow the cities would perish and the conquering grass and wilderness would overtake the haunts of man.
With his plow the pioneer farmer conquered the woods, subdued the sods of centuries and converted the soil of virgin continents to the use of man. Upon the foundations made and maintained by the plow, and the man who holds it to his furrow, America has built the greatest civilization of all time. With the plow and his sublime faith which leads him forth to turn the soils with renewed hope each springtime, the farmer makes possible all other industries of man: the plow and the man who holds it feed and clothe the world.
On display in this urbanized and industrialized county, it is a statement of rural realpolitik addressed to the majority of the population, whose livelihoods aren’t directly connected to working the earth. Along with the gendered and nationalistic bombast (and I’m still not sure what to make of the “brutes” line), its message to urban and suburban visitors is that without agriculture your world would cease to exist. It confronts us with a question: How would you go about feeding and clothing yourself?
The number of traditional farms in Lake County is decreasing—from 441 in 2007, to 430 in 2012, down to 384 in 2017, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Survey. The average size of each farm decreased by five percent between 2012 and 2017, and the total amount of land farmed in the county decreased by fifteen percent. In fact, every measurable category on the survey showed a decline with the exception of one: the amount of government subsidies received per farmer increased by four percent. Despite being a “blue” industrialized county, Lake County, Indiana deals with many of the problems facing rural America.
According to the survey, farming in Lake County is also entirely White. Of the 665 farm producers surveyed in 2017 all 665 marked their race as White. Under “other characteristics,” eight producers selected “Hispanic, Latino, Spanish origin.” This is down from eleven in the 2012 survey. The 2017 survey missed the few Black farmers quietly working the earth on small farms near the Little Calumet River. It also didn’t account for the burgeoning next chapter in Lake County agricultural history: urban agriculture.
Founded in 2015 with a just few raised beds, FAITH Farms (which stands for Families Anchored In Total Harmony), in Gary’s Emerson community, has grown to include four hoop houses, a chicken coop, and an apiary, and will soon welcome goats. A partnership with the Gary Public Transportation Corporation has led to the creation of seasonal pop-up farmers markets along major transit points, an effort to bring healthy and inexpensive food options to a city labeled a “food desert.”
For a majority-Black city like Gary, the new decade marks a unique moment. Older Black residents, who left the rural South for industrial work up North, retain a knowledge of agriculture and are eager to share that knowledge with a younger generation, which is in turn increasingly interested in learning that skillset.
Most of Gary’s largest schools now have a gardening program. A west side charter school, the Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, raises chickens and goats, selling the eggs and milk to local businesses. A handful of community gardens seem to have found the key to sustaining successful multi-year projects. In East Chicago, the Washington Park greenhouse has undergone a major renovation and now features an aquaponic growing system. Residents can pick up a free bag of organic produce each week.
The scale of these projects is scarcely comparable to the scale of traditional farming. By no means do I wish to suggest that urban farming will supplant traditional farming anytime soon. But these developments do suggest a reinvigorated bond between people and the land. And with close to twenty-five percent of the parcels in Gary vacant or abandoned, there is plenty of land on which to grow.
It’s been nearly a decade since I was last asked if I would “feel safe eating something grown in Gary?” Is it unreasonable to think that, by the end of this coming decade, more of the food we eat will be grown closer to home? In cities? And that more city people will become more directly involved in its production? And is it unreasonable to expect these changes to be reflected in future Lake County Fairs? To see more representation from the urban north county and the Black and Brown communities there? Given the current climatic, economic, and political conditions, I think not.
Staging the fair has always required the co-operation of the entire county, and from the beginning, when the communities we today call Crown Point, Merrillville, Lake Station, and Cedar Lake all fought to claim the county seat, co-operation hasn’t usually been the Lake County way. Consider the events leading up to 1934, the last year without a Lake County Fair. In 1932, North county Democrats gained control of the society from south county Republicans and introduced changes to help make the fair profitable. The changes, especially alcohol sales and a lax attitude towards gambling, both angered and alienated traditional supporters and failed to attract enough paying attendees to bring the society out of the red.
Farmers complained about beer sales, gambling, unpaid agricultural premiums, and an unimpressive livestock show. Lifetime supporters began to question whether the event should even continue. They asked, what is the point of an agricultural exhibition that fails to represent farmers? North county urban taxpayers, in turn, accused south countians of mismanaging the event, and, in late 1933, successfully petitioned county commissioners to deny a special appropriation request to cover previous years debts. There would be no fair in 1934.
Standing on the crest of Mis Sink Gu Guah’s hill, I think of the tensions in our history, the stories we tell about ourselves—and what they mean for the future. There’s nothing here to commemorate the Pottawatomie presence. Near the crest of the hill are three flagpoles, displaying the flags of the United States, the State of Indiana, and Lake County. The base is dedicated to Alfred Monix, a longtime member and former president of the Lake County Agricultural Society. I remember him as the kindly husband of the fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday School teacher at the Dutch Christian Reformed Church who paid us a dollar for each of the Ten Commandments we could memorize; I don’t have to look out very far to find my connections.
Gazing into the future I can see extraordinary potential in the Lake County Fair to unite a diverse, often divided county, and model how equity and inclusivity benefits all of our communities. I can see a fair that celebrates the leadership of Black and Brown urban farmers and environmental justice activists in the north county; that supports efforts to preserve family farms, healthy rural communities, and the natural ecosystem of the south county; that respects Native wisdom and acknowledges the violence and erasure of Native communities. I can see it connecting more people to the land, and to one another, than its founders could have ever imagined.
The challenges facing the Lake County Fair are the same ones facing communities across the region. Local history shows the consequences of failing to co-operate, of highlighting some communities and erasing others. Will the future be different? I hope so. One thing I know: whatever changes come to the region, we will see them at the fair. ■
This story was produced in partnership with Indiana Humanities’ INseparable project. Read more stories in the series here.
Samuel Love is the pen name of Samuel Barnett, an Indiana Arts Commission On-Ramp fellow and editor of the forthcoming Gary Anthology for Belt Publishing. He lives in Gary, Indiana.
Cover image of the Lake County Fair by Samuel Love.
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