The crisp air, bright colors, sparkling night lights, family, friends, peals of laughter, and the smell of salty and sweet foods permeating the air.  It’s fall in the South, and I find myself at the county fair.

Beginning at the end of summer and continuing through harvest, there is just something about county fairs or festivals in the South that says fall has arrived. Even Southern Living magazine announced “it’s not fall in the South without a visit to the fair.”  Just to see if SL was right, I asked a friend, “What is that one thing that makes you think “the South” when imagine or remember it?”  After a moment or two, to my surprise, she answered, “Red barns, bales of hay, and all of the local festivals and fairs.”

 

A county fair queen sitting on a pile of pumpkins and wearing a pumpkin crown.

Wallace Kirkland, The LIFE picture Collection, Getty Images

What is this love we southerners have for the county fair? We are a complicated people with still waters that run deep.  So, what is it about a festival or a fair that has the power to bring us together and become such a rich part of our cultural traditions?

I had to know. 

Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota Historical Society

As with most things in our lives, our deep connection with the fair began in our past, long before any of us were born or can even remember.  County fairs in the South began in earnest around 1855. What previously had been celebrated as harvest festivals (the biggest time of the year for courting!) became known as county fairs or exhibitions when state legislative acts were passed to encourage all counties to hold fairs in the fall for the purposes of demonstrating advancements in farming technology, practices, and techniques.

John Dominis, TIME-Life Pictures, Getty Images

John Dominis, TIME-Life Pictures, Getty Images

Equally important were exhibitions of prize livestock and domestic arts, such as quilting.  One of the oldest competitions at fairs is recipe judging, having its roots in the early harvest festivals. These contests included pies, cakes, breads, preserves, jams, jellies, and other canned items.  A panel of judges would taste each entry and pick a winner based on taste, texture, quality of ingredients, technique, and a myriad of other criteria specific to the food group.  After all, what good was all that harvest if you couldn’t do something wonderful with it?

In the agricultural South, these fairs celebrated both individual successes and the achievements of a community.  As a result, the county fair became a source of community pride and even growth by creating community identity, bonding citizens together, and representing the community’s values.  In some counties, fairs have been held every year without fail except during the Civil War and those first years of Reconstruction.  But as soon as communities were able, they brought back their fairs and festivals, celebrated what they grew and made, and all of the ways they had not just survived, but improved.  The return of our festivals were a sign that these communities were healing and ready for the future.

Jon Brenneis, TIME Life Pictures, Getty Images

Jon Brenneis, TIME Life Pictures, Getty Images

We work hard to preserve our heritage through our county fair and festival celebrations today. As we have changed, our fairs have changed with us.  While still honoring our farm, livestock, and domestic arts exhibitions, we have incorporated midways for the thrill seekers, beauty pageants, talent shows, crafts, races, eating contests, parades, cook-offs, and much more.  But it is still our fair or festival.  It still represents our community and what is special to the people who live here.  It still celebrates our achievements and what makes our community unique.  And it offers a particular nostalgia in an ever-changing world.

I know I have my own special memories of the fair. As a young teenager, I rarely ventured off the midway, eating as many foot long corn dogs as I could hold and riding all of the thrill rides I could possible handle with a mixture of delight and sheer terror.  I remember my children’s first visit to the fair, riding the ponies, their first taste of cotton candy and their immediate love for funnel cake. And I remember as an adult, 2 of my very best friends going on their first date at the fair and falling in love under the spell of the Ferris wheel.  Yes, I have my own special memories of the fair, and now I understand its deep connection with our past and the strange power it has to draw us together for an evening or a weekend and help us remember that we are a community.

giftbasket[Contest 2014] Fall brings out the best in our southern traditions from the fair, to homecoming (those giant mums), football and tailgating, hayrides, and more. I would love to hear about your favorite fall tradition in our comment section below!  Subscribers who comment are entered in the drawing for our October gift basket giveaway.  If you are not a subscriber, just subscribe now and comment, then you will be entered in the contest also!  I am waiting to hear YOUR fall favorite. | CONTEST CLOSED |


Sources (and further reading):

Southern Festivals (a list by state)

“We’ll See You at the State Fair,” The Daily South, SouthernLiving.com

Studying Community Festivals, Smithsonian; National Museum of Natural History

October Apple Festivals

“County Fairs,” Encyclopedia of Chicago

“A Brief History of State Fairs,” TIME

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