This Month in North Carolina History
October in North Carolina is the season for the State Fair. Crowds from around the state are drawn to an exciting combination of agricultural exhibits and midway attractions. A visit to the pig house, followed by a ride on the “Ring of Fire,” topped with fried chicken and funnel cake makes for a happy visit, especially if your digestion is robust. Popular entertainers, baby ducks, fireworks displays, pony rides, the world’s biggest frog, and the best peach preserves in North Carolina (blue ribbon) are all part of the mix.
The Fair itself grew out of the agricultural reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century. The North Carolina State Agricultural Society, organized in 1852, encouraged the adoption of good farming practices and agricultural education. In 1853 the Society organized the first State Fair to promote scientific farming and recognize the efforts of individual farmers. The Fair, a popular success in the 1850s, was interrupted by the Civil War but began again in 1869. The state of North Carolina took over the Fair from a financially strapped Agricultural Society in 1930, and for a few years the Fair was run by a circus promoter. In 1937, however, it was made a division of the Department of Agriculture where it has remained ever since.
The exhibition of prize livestock and crafts was the main emphasis of the Fair in its early days, but there was always an element of entertainment. Political speeches were an important part of the Fair if it were an election year. Horse racing was a perennial favorite activity almost from the beginning up through the early twentieth century. Athletics had a part in the Fair from early days. In the latter nineteenth century first baseball and then football games were played at the Fair. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, North Carolina State University played annual games on Thursday of Fair week, often against either the University of North Carolina or Wake Forest University. Individual entertainment events began early—a favorite was a balloon ascent followed by a parachute jump. In the 1870s carnival events and “freak” shows began appearing, and by 1895 a modern midway of rides and shows was an annual feature.
The State Fair was a popular occasion from its origin and has become a fixture of the social life of the state. The entertainment aspect of the Fair has grown over the years, but the heart of the event remains the crafts and the animals. People crowd in to see the prize winning pies and preserves, the beautiful horses and cattle, the blue ribbon pigs and mules, and unusual breeds such as silkies, a type of chicken covered all over with fine feathers. A young fan of the Fair, on seeing them for the first time, pronounced them to be “chickens with pants on.” All of this and more is on display at the North Carolina State Fair.
McLaurin, Melton A. The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years. Raleigh: Office of Archives and History and the North Carolina State Fair Division, c2003.
“Souvenir of Fair, Raleigh, North Carolina,” button from the Lew Powell Memorabilia Collection, North Carolina Collection Gallery, Wilson Special Collections Library.