The last years of the nineteenth century were a busy time for the citizens of Ann Arbor, with increased opportunities in recreation, entertainment, and sports. Although the number of circuses diminished from previous years, the size and quality of those which came were more impressive. Adam Forepaugh brought his show to town about every other year in the 1880's. P. T. Barnum's troupe performed several times. In 1896 Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show appeared and two years later the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town.
Because there were often several years between the appearances of circuses in Ann Arbor, many other forms of entertainment became popular. An Ann Arbor resident could hear lecturers such as Mark Twain, Robert G. Ingersoll, Julia Ward Howe, Frances Willard, Henry George, or Susan B. Anthony. Orators such as Theodore Roosevelt, James G. Blaine, Grover Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, and William McKinley spoke in town. Other possibilities for an enjoyable outing included a Shakespearean play, an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, or a concert by John Philip Sousa and the U. S. Marine Band. The most popular entertainment was the play "Uncle Tom's Cabin," based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel.
One of the most popular events on the Ann Arbor cultural scene was the annual May Festival, begun in 1894 and sponsored by the University Musical Society. Each year during the '90's, this festival attracted visitors from all over Michigan and several neighboring states. University Hall was often filled well beyond its normal capacity for performances.
Almost every year the Washtenaw County Agricultural and Horticultural Society sponsored a county fair in Ann Arbor. The displays, races, and entertainment generated much interest, but competition with fairs elsewhere in the county made the fair less than a paying proposition. In 1890, the Society was forced to sell its grounds on the south side of Hill Street between Forest and Lincoln. Mrs. Olivia Hall agreed to give the Society an equal amount of land in what is now Burns Park plus $7,000 in exchange for the Hill Street property. This transaction erased the organization's debt and for many years the fair prospered at its new location.
In the '80's and '90's, Ann Arbor's two libraries enjoyed increasing patronage. The public library had its quarters in the high school building and was open to the public a few hours a week. In 1885, the Ladies Library Association completed a new building on Huron Street where the Ameritech building now stands. Upon payment of a membership fee of one dollar a year a patron had access to a collection of 3,500 volumes.
Two of Ann Arbor's ethnic groups held annual celebrations and a number of special festivals during these years. Every year the African-American community either staged a celebration of Emancipation Day or organized excursions to participate in celebrations in other towns. In 1883, a large number of Ann Arbor African Americans went to Lansing for the Emancipation Day celebration. The following year a special celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the freeing of the slaves in the West Indies was held.
The other ethnic group in town with regular celebrations and festivals was the large German population living largely west of Main Street and south of Huron. During the 1880's the Beethoven Gesangverein (choral society) provided regular musical entertainment for the German community, and in the 1890's the Lyra Gesangverein took its place. Beginning in 1890, an annual celebration of German-American day was held in one of the communities in the county.
The Beethoven Gesangverein served as the host for the largest singing festival ever held in Ann Arbor. The three-day Seventh Peninsular Saengerfest, held in 1887, was conducted by the Peninsular Saengerbund, an organization representing most of the German singing societies in the state. Seventeen train-car loads of visitors came from Detroit. Over 3,000 people attended the closing concert.