canada africa partner reservation Ben Lowenthal: County Fair’s Demise Is Another Loss For Maui

Ben Lowenthal: County Fair’s Demise Is Another Loss For Maui

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For more than a century, the annual event brought together the island’s diverse communities and was a source of cherished memories for generations of residents.

Maui is still reeling from the fires that burned Lahaina and parts of Upcountry last summer. Recovery may be underway, but for many people it feels slow and the future is uncertain. Many remain homeless. Some live in tents on Kaanapali Beach.

All the while, the cost of living rises, wealthy newcomers keep arriving and distrust of institutions trying to assist Maui folks grows.

In these trying times comes some Maui news that has hit me hard. Last Tuesday the Maui Fair Alliance, the committee that puts on the county’s annual fair, announced that it’s not coming back after a hiatus since 2019. It is gone for good.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a big deal. And maybe the fair had less appeal now that places like the Fun Factory and the trampoline park are available for kids all the time.

But losing the fair still smarts. It enjoys a long history. It was started in 1916 by a committee of organizers in Maui County. Even then, the overwhelmingly white majority on the committee wanted to make sure it would be inclusive. The Maui News reported it was not “limited in any way to any particular class or classes of the people of Maui.”

Decades before anything resembling affirmative action and at a time when racial segregation was lawful, the committee made it a point to have the local Japanese and Chinese communities be part of the fair.

The nighttime scene on the midway at the last Maui Fair before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. (Courtesy: Brandon Segal/2019)

The first event was held over Thanksgiving weekend that year. It opened with a grand parade and included live music into the night. The next day featured sporting events and exhibitions followed by an evening of “cabareting and dancing.” The finale came on the third day with fireworks and a “ball of all nations” ending at 11 pm — a late hour for Maui then and even now.

The exhibitions were multicultural for their time and featured Native Hawaiian arts and crafts, a Japanese lantern exhibition and dances. People of all ethnicities and classes mingled — something rarely seen in the paternalistic and highly stratified world of plantation life in Hawaii.

It was a resounding success. People from across the territory came to Maui to go to the fair and see the Valley Isle. It was so popular that it became a fixture outlasting the territorial government.

There were 98 county fairs on Maui, missing only World War II and the Covid-19 pandemic years.

My memories of the fair aren’t unique. Anyone who grew up on Maui felt the excitement of seeing the rides and wooden booths being assembled and rising above the banyan tree near War Memorial Gym in the week leading up to the Wailuku event.

Flower exhibits and student artwork inside the War Memorial Gym at the Maui Fair. (Courtesy: Wendy Hudson/2017)

The gym held displays for local orchid growers, amateur agriculturalists with stunning fruits and vegetables and student artwork. My high school art teacher entered our class’ pieces to be judged. All of us waited in anticipation to see who got a prized ribbon from the unseen and unnamed judges.

My art never won, but I boast that one of my greatest achievements was when I entered a near-perfect stalk of healthy apple bananas and won a blue ribbon my senior year.

Entire generations of Mauians can tell you something similar. Ask us.

We’ll tell you about sleeping on-site to run our church’s or civic organization’s food booths and standing in line under the hot sun to eat wonderfully greasy and delicious chow fun and flying saucers, the iconic sandwich of the fair. We have stories about spectacular-looking chickens, birds, cows and hogs on display in the livestock tents.

We’ll discuss the strategy behind the midway games. My brother had the skills to win those huge stuffed animals in the arcade by perfectly tossing a ring around a bottle neck or throwing a dart right on target.

We’ll show you pictures of us in the opening parade down Kaahumanu Avenue either as small kids in preschool like me or as a dazzling beauty contestant in high school. And all of us will have a story about riding the Zipper, the Gravitron, the Music Express that went backward until you felt sick, or simply barreling down a massive slide on a potato sack.

The Maui Fair made memories for local residents of all ages. (Courtesy: Brandon Segal/2019)

When tourism became Maui’s primary economic engine, the fair remained a local event. That’s what made it special. It was put on by residents. The rides and games were for Maui’s kids. The money raised went to local organizations. The exhibitions featured local work.

More than a century ago, an editorial in the once-thriving (and now ever-shrinking) local newspaper, The Maui News, touched on this:

“The First Maui County Fair was a success. It was a success from practically every viewpoint. It was a revelation even to ourselves, for even the most optimistic workers had not dared to hope for the results accomplished … But the thing that does count — the great, big, significant fact that stands out ahead of everything else — is that Maui can pull together… Maui has demonstrated that her people can co-operate. That all ranks and walks of life and all nationalities can and will earnestly and intelligently work together to a common end. We have proven to ourselves that our men and women are willing to put aside their own affairs, forget personal grievances, and work … far harder than they would ever work for themselves.

“It’s great. It is stimulating … It is the real Maui spirit — the kind of spirit that accomplishes the impossible.”

Losing the fair may seem trivial beyond Maui. But it was our fair, and it brought us together. That’s something that will be sorely missed.