(Photos by Jennifer V. Cole and Kathryn Cole)
This week, on a twisty stretch of Highway 21 outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, the 119-year-old Neshoba County Fair celebrates the very essence of Southern hospitality (July 25-August 1). I’ve been going since I was 3-months-old, and I can tell you, there’s a reason it’s known as "Mississippi’s Giant House Party." For seven days, folks do a lot of eating (fried foods required), drinking (you might find some ‘shine), front porch sittin’, and late-night pickin’. It’s a time to slow down. To forget laptops and cell phones. And to practice the art of conversation and storytelling on a lazy summer day. I just spent a weekend at the Fair catching up with friends and chasing around after my nieces and nephews (I’ve got the red-clay-stained feet to prove it), and I can’t think of a better place to be in the month of July. If you’ve never been, add it to your list. If you have been, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Here are a few photos of life at the Fair:
As you walk past the rows of cabins, you’ll inevitably hear kids say "Mommmmm! When can we go to the Midway?" The Midway is home to 20 different rides and an assortment of carnival games. Step right up for a chance to win a stuffed animal, or climb aboard the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Ring of Fire to feel a little G-force pull. As kids, my brothers and I would wait until the Midway closed each night, and then go look under the Zipper for money that fell out of people’s pockets during the ride. It was the perfect way to fund our own Midway exploits without constantly dipping into the Daddy-ATM.
Afternoon rain storms are a welcome break from the stifling summer heat–Mississippi in July isn’t exactly temperate. Some folks are content to wait out the showers from the safety of a front-porch swing. The more free-spirited head straight for the red mud at the racetrack to go "swimming" in the puddles. Even if you don’t take a dive into the puddles, expect a little bit of that red Neshoba clay to leave it’s mark. Word of advice: Don’t wear white to the Fair.
The Neshoba County Fair started in 1889 as a meeting of local farmers, and it’s still rooted in agriculture. Throughout the week, there are three livestock shows (beef, dairy, and sheep), a calf scramble, and a Friday-night rodeo. The Petting Barn is open during the day for kids to get a hand’s-on (notice the hand-washing station) look at the animals, from cows and horses to baby chicks and rabbits.
For one week in July during the Fair, the fairgrounds operate like a self-contained city. About 600 brightly painted wooden cabins are divided into neighborhoods with names like Founders’ Square, Happy Hollow, and Sunset Strip. Trucks drive around making daily ice deliveries (you go through a LOT of ice at the Fair). And there’s even a post office on-site, where you can get your own Neshoba County Fair postmark.
Whether it’s a deep-fried corndog and a fresh-squeezed lemonade from Lindsey’s at the Midway, a local farmer selling fresh vegetables, or an invitation to share fried chicken and cat-head biscuits at a nearby cabin, you’re never far from your next meal. This is not the time to try out a new diet.
Welcome to a bastion of old-fashioned, tree-stump politics. Ronald Reagan announced his bid for the Presidency here. Michael Dukakis made it a stop on his campaign trail. Gubernatorial candidates show up to press the flesh. And local politicians make empassioned pleas to voters under the eaves of the old wooden Pavilion in Founder’s Square.
Every afternoon, Sunday through Friday, spectators line up around the track to watch the harness races. Though there’s no organized betting, it’s not uncommon to find folks placing a friendly wager. Whether you watch from the grandstand, from the bed of a pick-up truck, or from a cabin porch, you’ll hear shouts of "Go number 5!" (or 4 or 7) echoing around the dusty track.
But the real action happens right after the last horse race, when the Chair Race begins. People line up with lawn chairs to flood the infield as soon as the last horse is off the track. You’ll see lines of chairs duct-taped together. People leaping fences. Elbows being thrown. It’s a rowdy fight for a nightly prize: seats for that evening’s entertainment. Whether it’s the Miss Neshoba County Fair pageant or the Cross Canadian Ragweed concert, a front-row seat is a point of pride at the Neshoba County Fair. You can’t buy it or get special passes for it. A front-row seat is earned at the Fair.