In 1962 the movie State Fair came out. It was a re-make of 1933 and 1945 movies of the same name. From what I can find out, it was a bomb. But, if you were a teenager when you saw it, you did not know that the critics didn’t love it. Heck, you hadn’t even heard of movie critics if you were a teenager in Mulberry, Arkansas. I don’t remember that much about the movie itself other than the music, which since it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, was great. Not that we knew anything about Rodgers and Hammerstein at that time, but that should give you a good idea. And, it made me want to go to the Texas State Fair more than anything. I’ve still not made it to the Texas fair, but I have a life long love of fairs and the movie may have played a big part in that love affair (get it, love afFAIR?).
I have vague memories of the Oklahoma State Fair which would be only right as we lived in Oklahoma City in our formative years. Oh dear, now I have to bust out singing so join me with OOOOOOOKKKKKKLLLLLLAAAHOOOOMMMMAAAA where the wind comes racing down the plains…. Yes, I know, different movie but still, how could I help myself? I’ve been to the Arkansas State Fair many times and even made it to the Alaska State Fair in Fairbanks. Now that was a different experience, let me tell you.
But I love county fairs more than anything. The Crawford County Fair was held in my hometown of Mulberry, Arkansas. It was a huge event for everyone in town, in fact, for everyone in the county. It was such a big deal, that we got out of school on the Thursday it opened. Most of us kids had something to enter or our mother and father’s needed our help with entering their items. Now the fair itself only ran from Wednesday until Saturday, but the preparations began months, and in some cases, a year in advance. Many entries in so many categories were valid from the end of the fair the previous year to the beginning of the fair in the current year. Apples came in to their glory after the fair closed so applesauce, apple jelly and other apple stuff had to be made then and held over until the next year. And wool coats, skirts and dresses would be made in the winter and entered the following fall. What a thrill to wear a blue ribbon winner to school! And of course, animals had to have a chance to grow.
Each class in the junior and senior high schools would make floats for the parade. And I mean floats, beautiful fancy floats. Not just someone in the back of a truck throwing candy. We would spend entire class periods haggling over the theme and name of the floats and just who was going to be what on the float. Hundreds of hours were spent stapling chicken wire around a flat-bed trailer and then stuffing thousand and thousands of pieces of tissue paper into the little spaces to make this confection like base. Construction paper letters were carefully cut out to spell out the theme and the class. Glitter was sometimes used for extra sparkle. And costumes, always costumes of some sort. No brag, just fact, but our class was almost always the winner.
Miss Crawford County and Crawford County Princess contestants were always a big feature of the parades. Girls from all over the county vied for the titles. This was back in a more simple and gentle time too, so the dresses were beautiful but not something that would set a family back for years. For the big girls, long formal gowns and for the little girls, fluffy and full Sunday dresses. The bathing suits were something you could let your grandmother see without fear of her having a heart attack or your grandfather throwing a quilt over you. And that was it. No speeches, no need for talent (other than to be able to walk in a pair of heels without falling off the stage), just wholesome, healthy girls. If a girl was going to be in the pageant, the first thing she had to do was line up a convertible for the parade. Once you had that, then you planned your dresses around the car. It was not unusual to see a girl in her Rainbow Girl formal or prom gown doing double duty. As an aside, when my daughter was in the pageant, she wore my pageant gown (red dotted swiss southern bell with hoop skirt) for the parade, how cool is that?).
Mulberry didn’t have a band, marching or otherwise, but other schools in the county did and they would come. Alma’s band was always there. They might have been our big basketball rival, but we sure could appreciate their band. To our eyes, these bands could not have been more impressive than the biggest college marching band with fancy footwork. They were awesome with their baton twirlers, impressive uniforms and brass instruments shinning. Not only did they march, they played the entire route. They went from the high school, down Church Street, up Main Street, across the highway and out to Kirksey Park. The bands didn’t just perform in front of the judges, but played their music, real music for miles. I can only imagine how tired those kids were when they finally made it to the fair grounds.
The county fair was not just spectacle either. There was livestock. Lots and lots of livestock. Chickens, turkeys, goats, calves, cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits, you name it, they were there. The 4-H kids would show the animals they had raised over the year. These beautiful creatures were washed and brushed until they shone then trotted around in the show ring. Nothing like seeing a seventy-five pound little girl bossing around an 150 pound hog to make you appreciate all their hard work. There is something so very nostalgic about the smell of the livestock barn, the very rich pungent aroma is like nothing else. It is the smell of animals, sweat, love and pure joy.
But my very favorite exhibits were the Home Economics exhibits. Canning, baking, sewing, needle arts, photography, quilting, knitting, crocheting, painting and crafts of all kinds. Various groups, from Boy Scouts to Home Extension clubs had displays set up for judging. These would range from whimsical to inspirational to informational, but all were colorful and fun. My passion was canning and I led the Senior Canning division for years. There is nothing more beautiful than a shiny jar of a garden’s bounty. A nice jar of beets is a work of art. Each green been would be exactly the same size as the other and cut to the same length. Jellies and jams would glisten, pickles would shimmer and tomatoes glow. This was show off time. The art was not in how good something would taste, but how beautiful and perfect it looked. I would see women (and men) carefully clean off each jar they had carefully wrapped in newspaper for transport as they handed them to me. I would actually use Pledge on my jars to make them shine.
After the jars had been entered, judging would begin. I loved our judges. Judges always came from another county (and we would send ladies to other counties to be judges there) but over the years, I came to know them all. One year I was, shall we say, great with child. And a very active child at that. The baby would kick and squirm so much that it got in the way sometimes and a really good kick would leave me huffing and puffing. Christine was one of the judges that year and she just knew I would give birth before she got finished. Amanda did hold off until the end of September, but that was cutting it a little close. Amanda never missed a fair after that, then Luke came along and it was pretty much the same story since he too was an end of September baby. As soon as they were old enough, they had their own entries.
After the judging and when all the ribbons had been awarded, we would carefully line up the jars on the shelves where you could see the contents and the ribbons. I loved seeing the variety off canned goods. Some people would have an entry in each and every single category and one in each miscellaneous one too. I guarded those jars like a mother hen. They had been entrusted to me and everyone wanted their award winning jar back. Now, I love a funnel cake, it is my very favorite fair food. I would promise myself if I didn’t yell or shriek at a fair goer for touching the canning, I would get one on Saturday night. After three years of missing my funnel cake, I gave up and just figured people needed yelling at if they couldn’t ready the bloody signs and rewarded myself for not hitting anyone.
My biggest disappointment in Mississippi is that people here don’t understand what a county fair should be. The Neshoba County fair is famous, but it is not a fair. There is enough politics and house partying for the whole country, but no real fair. One year we went to the Forrest County Fair. I was so excited to go and could hardly wait to get there. In the parking lot, all I could see were rides and the mid-way. Then, we got to the entrance and I asked where the home economics building was all I got was a blank stare. There wasn’t one. I asked for the livestock, seeing that would make me happy. There was a petting zoo I was told. I cried, I actually cried. I don’t remember where Nort took me to try to make me feel better, but it was not a fair. When we move back to Arkansas, I’m going to a fair.