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The State Fair - something a real North Carolinian should do

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, October 18, 2004

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It is State Fair Week in Raleigh-giving us an opportunity to do one of those things that every one who wants to be a "real North Carolinian" should do.

Every year about one in every 10 North Carolinians visits the fair.

Every year about one in every 10 North Carolinians visits the fair. About 830,000 came last year-almost as many people as the total population of the state when the fair started more than 150 years ago.

With good weather on opening weekend and a new company managing the rides and games, attendance could break records. The third different company in three years to run the rides, Reithoffer Shows from Florida, will pay the state about $5.81 per paid attendee for the franchise to operate the midway.

It runs into big money for the state-more than $4 million last year.

The big money and the high rate of turnover are the result of a new open bidding process. Agriculture Commissioner Britt Cobb opened up the bidding to move the State Fair away from the campaign finance scandals associated with his predecessor, Meg Scott Phipps. The open bidding ended the kind of cozy relationship the Department of Agriculture had with amusement companies, like Strates Shows, which ran the midway for more than 50 years.

While the open bidding process reduces the chances for scandal, there is a downside. If the selection process is based solely on the amount of money the operator pays the state, it is harder for the state and the operator to negotiate the kind of long-term improvements that can come from negotiated partnerships.

The attractions of the midway and the money sometimes make a fair visitor forget to visit and enjoy the agricultural exhibits and contests located in buildings away from the midway's rides and games. The animals are better looking than most fair goers. They have to be, if they are going to win a ribbon. If they leave the midway for a little while, visitors can see cattle and sheep being shampooed and blown dried like Miss America contestants.

The first state fair came about as part of an effort to move North Carolina out of a backward economy by improving its agricultural methods. It was to be a way to spread information about improved techniques and machinery to the state's farmers.

The fair opened on a 16-acre site about a mile east of the Capitol in Raleigh on October 18, 1853, under the sponsorship of the newly organized North Carolina Agricultural Society. Two small "main" buildings housed the exhibits. Admission was set at 25 cents per person, 50 cents per buggy, and $1.00 for a carriage.

In 1873 the fair moved to new facilities west of the Capitol near where the main campus of N.C. State University is located today.

The fair's current location is the site of a World War I military base. The move to the new site in the 1920's coincided with the fair's reorganization as a state agency under the Department of Agriculture.

Under state control the fair has grown in size, attendance and significance as a part of North Carolina life, even as the relative importance of agriculture has declined. The fairgrounds' facilities and their uses have been expanded to host displays and events throughout the year.

The 150 years that the fair has been at the center of North Carolina economics, politics, and old-time fun is the subject of a coffee table sized book published late last year. "The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years" by Melton A. McLaurin tells the story in detail. It puts the fair in the context of North Carolina history and economics. For those who would rather look than read, hundreds of photos and other illustrations selected by Paul Blankinship give a look at the fair's activities through the years.

For people who have been to the fair, either recently or many years ago, McLaurin's book will be a great reminder. For those who have never been, it will make them want to go.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (October 24) guest is John Shelton Reed, Minding the South, author of
"Minding the South."

Programs coming up:

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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