Fair Enough

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.

Second-in-line to the County Fair crown.

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.

Only you…

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.

One is real…

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.

Fair-bound shuttle

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.

 

Hiker College

Lookout Mountain. Signal Mountain. Raccoon Mountain. Chattanooga rests in the laps of multiple mountains, so why would hikers in Chattanooga go out of state looking for a mountain to climb?

In the case of a hike Bill and I recently took with the Chattanooga Hiking Club, which has members living as far as 50 to 75 miles from the city, driving to Berry College to hike was as much about accommodating member hikers who live there as it was about a change of scenery.

Away they go, with Bill setting the pace.

Berry is a private, liberal arts college of about 2,000 students that is technically in Mount Berry, Georgia. For all practical purposes, though, it’s in Rome, Georgia, about a 90-minute drive from Chattanooga.

Berry also has the world’s largest college campus in terms of land area. It sits on more than 27,000 acres of woodland, fields and streams.

That vast acreage includes Berry’s “Mountain Campus,” and parts of that are open to the public for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Bill and I made our first trip there to meet up with the Chattanooga Hiking Club.

The hike was led by Barbara McCollum, a club member who lives in Rome, Georgia. Barbara also just happens to be a Berry alum and past president of its alumni association. She is a fountain of Berry fun facts and of energy.

The meet-up time was 9 a.m. That meant Bill and I had to leave Chattanooga by 7:30 a.m. and get up even earlier, on a Saturday. When we arrived at 9, Barbara and a handful of other hikers had already knocked out an extra three miles they wanted to log before pushing off with us and the larger group for another 10 miles. Plus, they got in three more miles after the group hike. We learned that’s because Barbara and the mileage-adding others were less than a week from leaving for Spain to hike about 360 miles of the famed Camino de Santiago in about 30 days.

I’ve known about and wanted to walk the Camino for 20 years. I’m jealous, but the fact six members of the club were about to go and do it told me these are my kind of hikers.

Inside Frost Chapel

The Berry Mountain Campus has a network of 80 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, and two frisbee golf courses.

After you pass through the main campus entrance, you meander through three miles of Gothic stone buildings, open fields and groves of trees until you arrive at the mountain campus.

We met at Frost Chapel, a campus landmark built by Berry students in 1937.

Frost Chapel entrance

The chapel was open, so we took a look inside. The heavy wood-beamed ceiling, flagstone floor, slate roof and stained-glass windows made it look like an Appalachian, fairy-tale version of a church, and it was definitely worth a look.

From there, we walked to the nearby “House of Dreams gravel access/fire road.” That began an eight-mile loop, following the gentle, but insistent ascent of almost 1,000 feet in 2.5 miles up Lavendar Mountain.

The campus is known for having a population of 1,500-2,000 deer, and we saw several members of that community on our winding climb.

Up on Lavendar Mountain, we reached the cottage and gardens known as the House O’ Dreams. Both once belonged to Miss Martha Berry, who founded the college. The House O’ Dreams–yes, that’s how it’s spelled–was built by Berry students in 1922 as a gift to Miss Martha on the school’s 20th anniversary. Born to a Georgia family of wealth amassed from decades as wholesale grocers and cotton brokers, Miss Martha was an advocate for education, especially for those who might not easily have access.

House O’ Dreams and gardens with koi pond

The House O’ Dreams sits at 1,360 feet elevation, by far the highest for 360 degrees all around. It looks out on the town of Rome, and toward Alabama in one direction and back toward Tennessee in another.

Firetower atop Lavender Mountain

In fact, I could make out some mountains in the distance toward Chattanooga, so I fired up a $5 app on my phone: A.R. Peak Finder. You open it and hold your phone as if taking a picture of a mountain horizon in front of you. On your phone screen, you see a photographic image, but it also has the names of mountain peaks in the image.

It uses GPS coordinates to determine the location of the phone and the peaks you aim at.

Garden archway on Lavender Mountain

I learned about it from my fellow avid hiker and close friend, Hank Dye, and it’s a nifty little tool I recommend to anybody who wants to know more about mountain geography in front of them because it will work on any topography around the world.

It was pretty amazing to see confirmation that one of the peaks I was looking at—from 75 miles away—was Lookout Mountain back in Chattanooga. That’s how far and clear the view was from Lavendar Mountain.

From the House O’ Dreams, we began our descent on a wooded trail used by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

That trail took us past a lake reservoir, a project financed by Henry Ford, one of Miss Martha’s affluent and cause-minded friends.

The lake that Henry Ford built
Bill at The Mill

We continued to what’s called the Old Mill with its 3-story-sized water wheel and reportedly the most-photographed spot on the campus.

Shortly thereafter, we were strolling among the buildings of a Chick-Fil-A-funded marriage and family center, then our eight miles were logged and our loop was complete.

Just for fun, and because it was Labor Day Weekend and the traditional start of football season, the hiking club had asked participants to bring food contributions for a post-hike tailgate.

Newbies, like us, were told we were off the hook to bring food, but Bill and I imagined a cold, healthy fruit salad might be a hit. We brought it, and it was.

Travel+Leisure magazine rates Berry as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country. I have to agree. Not to mention it dedicates thousands of wooded acres to outdoor pursuits–that’s a college any hiker ought to want to get into.