If you grew up in Tennessee and, certainly if you grew up with Tennessee 4H, you more than likely have been to a county fair more than once.
I don’t know exactly how many times I have been to a county fair, but the number would have been at least 12 or so by the time I moved out of my parents’ house for college. In the small town of Sparta, where I grew up, everybody went to the White County Fair, at least once every year. The younger you were, the more times you went.
The White County Fair always began on Labor Day and ended on the following Saturday. I would help my mother and grandmother complete entry forms for canned or baked goods or needlework they would enter into competition. Entry was free, and winning entries earned $2 or $3 each. My mother usually brought home $20 or $30 in winnings, making it worth the effort to her and my grandmother.
My older brother and a high school boyfriend of mine competed in the cattle show. You’d be surprised at the extent of cosmetic measures involved—shampooing, coat oil, black spray paint for the hooves and buttons left from de-horning—in making solid, healthy cows look their show-worthy best.
I usually had a supporting role in various 4H activities going on throughout the week. Except for a couple of years when I ventured into new territory for the first time.
At the age of 11, I entered a new talent contest in its debut year. I had to try out before the fair committee to qualify, and my a cappella singing of an Olivia Newton-John hit ended up winning first place and $50. That was the first money I ever made. Six years later, I was slightly less successful in competition.
My then-boyfriend urged me to enter the beauty contest—the Fairest of the Fair.
I’d never been interested in such a thing, based on my thinking that a girl had to think of herself as a prize-winning beauty to enter a beauty contest. My boyfriend insisted, despite it being little more than 24 hours until the contest, which always kicked off the Labor Day first night of the fair. After Sunday church, I went to the home of a couple who organized the contest, filled out the application and got word of a contestants’ luncheon the next day.
I didn’t own a pageant-type dress. Immediately after the Monday luncheon, my mother took me to a local store to look for a dress to wear on stage in a few hours. We found something acceptable and—bonus—it was on clearance and cost $5. I ended up being named second runner-up. That was it for my competitive beauty career.
Saturday night—the last night—at the fair always drew the biggest crowd.
People seldom seen in public otherwise would be seen wandering the midway, playing the shooting, throwing or sledgehammer-banging games; having a burger and fries at the Lions Club food concession.
I once heard a charismatic gospel preacher decry it as “a place of sin and beggars.”
As a teenager, it was a place to observe all the new couplings and uncouplings of high school romance that may have occurred over the summer just ended.
Since moving away from my hometown, I’ve never lived in a place where fair-going was so widely practiced. I went to the “Mid-South Fair” once while living in Memphis and the “Tennessee Valley Fair” a couple of times while living in Knoxville. That’s it—until venturing to the Hamilton County Fair this weekend.
It was the first time the county fair in Chattanooga – annually on the last weekend of September – happened since we moved here in June 2018. Unlike the near-drought conditions we find ourselves in today, torrential rains in 2018 began on Labor Day weekend and seldom stopped until March. Last year’s Hamilton County Fair was rained out for the first time in history.
When I saw that this year’s is described as the 30thanniversary fair, I was puzzled. How could Chattanooga not have had a county fair prior to 1989? Turns out, the anniversary is of when the fair began being staged in Hamilton County’s Chester Frost Park after a history of being relocated several times since the first one in 1915.
Chester Frost Park is a popular boating, camping and fishing spot only about four miles from our house, so we were both curious and convenient to check it out.
Shuttle buses manage traffic and the limited parking, since the park is still home to dozens of campers and the same number of fishing and recreational boats buzzing across Chickamauga Lake.
Other than the unusual location—shared with a lake, fishermen and campers at a public park—and no midway, this fair offered all the usual agricultural, livestock and home-centered competitions.
It had a fairly diverse collection of farm animals, and I surprised myself approaching animals I grew up around as if I were at a petting zoo.
Guess I’ve been gone from the farm longer than I thought.
It’s only a two-day event, and I’m glad for the live animals that this is so, since the weather is ungodly hot and the animals are confined in pretty tight spaces to allow the 50,000 of us who’ll visit the fair this weekend to get an up-close look.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Bill and I didn’t get there until about 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Though it was actually Bill’s idea to go, he said arriving at 4 p.m. was plenty early since he didn’t plan on spending more than a couple of hours there.
Unfortunately, our timing was too late for the two editions of Mayfield’s Ice Cream Eating contest, and we missed the racing, swimming pig shows.
Oh, well. Next time.