Prize pigs, 600-pound pumpkins, blue-ribbon apple pies and strawberry jams — ah, the state fair, that beloved slice of Americana immortalized in lush Technicolor musicals and cherished in hearts across the generations. That candy-colored sparkle and romantic hum of the midway on a late-summer night. That sweet smell of funnel cakes and fresh … cash?
Yep, cash. Some $165,000 of it, to be exact. And it’s there for the taking in this the 10th year of the North Carolina Mountain State Fair, divided among competitions that range from gospel singing to raising exotic chickens, from cooking to monster-truck pulls. (Prize money, organizers say, comes exclusively from the previous year’s gate receipts.)
Big-money prizes are a fairly recent lure for fairs, which began as events focused on exhibition, not competition.
State and county fairs have been a part of American culture since the early- to mid-1800s. Many states argue over whose was first, with Massachusetts (Topsfield Fair, 1818) usually declared the victor.
In those early days, fairs were soundly grounded in the agrarian society of the times — they were venues for showing off prized livestock and celebrating the harvest. State governments gradually came to realize that fairs were the perfect showcase for highlighting state achievements (fairs, for example, became the first public places where people could view, up-close-and-personal, such newfangled inventions as the electric light and the automobile). Eventually, the popular midway was added (replete with whirring rides and brash carnies), along with musical entertainment (no less than the Beatles performed at the Indiana State Fair in 1964).
In the modern era, though, competition has increasingly become the name of the game.
The Human Cannonball as bait
Bill Edmondson, Mountain State Fair manager and founder, is both pragmatic and philosophical in his approach to the changing face of fairs.
“Our goal is to try and change with the times,” he declares.
“We, as humans, tend to hate change,” he continues. “People dig their heels in the ground. But regardless of what we say, we all change. We fight it, but we change automatically, whether we know it or not; and for the most part, it’s better. I don’t think most of us would want to go back to the early 1900s — driving a horse and wagon and not having electricity.”
Part of fairs changing with the times — beyond increasing their cash prizes — means giving people something new to see and do every year, Edmondson says.
“My philosophy, based on experience, is that 15 or 20 percent of people will come to the fair, regardless,” he notes. “The rest, you have to encourage to come. So I look at that 60 to 70 percent and realize I have to show them something they’re afraid they’re going to miss if they don’t come.”
That “something” includes the Human Cannonball — a man who catapults across the fairgrounds after being shot from a cannon.
Among the other attractions Edmondson says he’s most excited about this year are the Mooternity Ward, where folks can witness a steady stream of calf births; state-sponsored exhibitions on native wildlife and highway safety (the latter complete with a “DWI simulator” allowing drivers to experience firsthand, and sans alcohol, how impaired they may become after a few drinks); and a death-defying, high-tech ride called the Moon Rocket.
Other attractions that are either new or returning after a hiatus include the Great Lakes Lumberjacks, who’ll perform three fast-paced daily shows of log rolling, tree climbing and chain sawing; and the Mitchell Marionette Showboat (whose custom-assembled crew includes Madame Zelda and her all-knowing crystal ball; the Gypsy Puppet Circus; and Merrie Millie, an animatronic talking monkey who’ll abandon ship each day on her electric bike to chat with fairgoers).
But despite increasing emphasis on prize money and interactive attractions, Cindy Kaufman, the event’s entry coordinator, believes that people still flock to the fair for the same reasons they always have — the chance to bond with family, friends and community, and to take pride in their own displayed handiwork.
“I think that people are trying to get away from the pressures of the modern world and do things together as a family,” she muses. “A grandmother, mother and daughter, for example, might sew a quilt together and then come see it on exhibit with their names on it, which is very gratifying.
“Plus, I think this generation is trying to bring back some of that stuff for survival skills,” she suggests. “Like how to grow your own healthy food and take care of your animals. That teaches children so much responsibility. The kids can stand back and see what they’ve accomplished with their garden or their finished craft.
“If they see it hanging there with a blue ribbon on it, it’s even better,” she admits.
Better still: “Then they get that check in the mail.”
What would Jesus say?
The majority of competitions at the Mountain State Fair don’t pay very much.
“For the crafts division, for example, first prize is $6,” Kaufman reveals.
But a few other competitions do pay enough to sometimes bring out the worst in folks: Clogging competitions fork over a total of $6,600 in cash prizes; bluegrass/old-time music, $3,800; and gospel singing, $1,800.
How cutthroat does the gospel competition, for example, become? “Unfortunately, they sometimes get worked up,” Edmondson says diplomatically.
“And let me tell you, it’s not the kids,” he continues. “It’s the adults. I’ve had people furious, saying, ‘You didn’t start on time,’ or ‘I wasn’t judged properly.’ … We had what you might call a constructive critic who said, ‘You told us we had to be here at 1 p.m. We fought to get out of church on time, but didn’t participate till 5.'” (To discourage such grousing, times for specific competitions are stricter this year, Edmondson says.)
Kaufman is particularly fond of the more homey competitions, such as the one featuring honey and honey products, where fair patrons can watch live honeybees do their stuff, and then view the result.
“The beautiful jars of honey and wax products are great,” she enthuses. “That’s where the kids go first, to see the bees.”
Kaufman also gets a kick out of the decorated-vegetables competition: “Someone will take a squash and turn it into a duck, gluing on eyes, legs and a beak, that kind of thing.”