Fair celebrates centennial
By Kim Grizzard
Sunday, September 15, 2019
In September 1920, Woodrow Wilson was president, and what would become the National Football League charged 12 teams $100 each to join. That same year, the county fair came to town with carnival rides, cotton candy, prize pigs and front-page stories in the local newspaper.
Seventeen presidents later, 32 teams in the NFL make up a multi-billion industry while the fair shows almost no signs of aging.
Pitt County American Legion Agricultural Fair will celebrate the century mark during this year's six-day run, which begins Tuesday at the fairgrounds, 3910 Martin Luther King Highway.
The first county fair opened Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1920, at what is now Guy Smith Stadium on Memorial Drive. Before the noon opening there was an hourlong parade down Dickinson Avenue.
These and other pieces of fair history will be part of a centennial display in the exhibit hall this week.
“We found articles back to 1920,” Pitt County fair executive Phyllis Ross said. “I was amazed at what we were able to find.
“I did not realize but the Pitt County fair, years ago, used to have a parade before the fair,” she said. “They also had horse racing. It's really interesting to go back and look at the history.”
Fair photographer Beverly Allamon took on the role of fair historian in preparation for the 100th anniversary celebration. She searched The Daily Reflector Image Collection at ECU's Joyner Library for historic images and garnered other information from the writings of the late Louis May, a former fair president.
May, a Pitt County native and American Legion member, had compiled a history of the fair in conjunction with the 65th anniversary in 1984. Among the highlights of his research:
Greenville businessman W. Haywood Dail largely was responsible for launching the fair. He invested almost $100,000 to purchase land and build exhibit halls and a race track.
The first fair was played by Krause Greater Shows, said to be one of the four largest carnivals in the country. It traveled on 22 railroad cars carrying 300 people and 20 attractions.
The year 1929 was a difficult one for the fair, even though the stock market did not crash until eight days after the fair was over. The challenge was that the weather was bad and more than half the week was lost to rain.
By 1936, the fair was taken over by the Greenville and Farmville American Legion posts. (Ayden's American Legion would join the effort later.) The old fairgrounds became home to a new ballpark, and the American Legion bought a site on Falkland Highway. It was the second of four homes in the history of the fair. (The fair moved to its current location in 1978.)
The fair, like many others, was suspended in 1943 due to war, but it resumed the following year. It was the only year the fair was canceled altogether except for 1999, when the fairgrounds were flooded following Hurricane Floyd.
Allamon condensed the fair's 10 decades of history into 100 slides that include little-known information about the fair, such as the fact that the cost of admission, which began at 50 cents, was lowered to 25 cents during the Depression. The presentation includes vintage photos, some dating back to the 1940s.
“There are pictures of the ladies decked out in their hose and their pumps with their purses on their arms to go to the fair,” Allamon said.”That's one of the most interesting things to me, the way they dressed.”
While fashions have changed, Allamon was surprised to find that many aspects of the fair appear to have been left untouched by the passage of time.
“It amazes me,” she said. “The exhibits are pretty much the same, the same concepts. The rides are basically the same principle.”
The contests, too, are similar – from cakes and pies to canned fruits and pickles. The fair still offers premiums and bragging rights for entries ranging from prize pumpkins to poultry.
“That was one of the big attractions for the fair, who had the best pumpkin pie, who had the best apple pie, who made the prettiest cake,” Allamon said. “And the animals, the livestock, those exhibits were part of what earned Pitt County (the name) 'Fair Territory.'”
Ken Ross, who took over as fair manager 17 years ago, is proud that the fair continues to thrive when many county fairs across the state have folded.
“It used to be in the state of North Carolina, we had 100 fairs. Each county had its own fair,” he said. “Now we're doing to 34 statewide, including the state fair. They're dropping out.”
To keep the local fair alive, Ross has tried to preserve the history while also creating new traditions. Among them is Marc Dobson, the one man band, who has been playing the fair since 2011. Already this year, folks have been calling the fair to see if Dobson is coming back.
“(Pitt County American Legion Agricultural Fair) was the first fair I worked as the one-man band,” Dobson said in a telephone interview from his home in Florida. “Ken gave me a chance. He's kind of known for that. He will take new acts and take risks, and usually they work.”
Dobson, who has gone on to play fairs throughout North Carolina, including the state fair, has an affection for Pitt County's fair, which he considers to be exceptionally clean and well organized.
Dobson should know. He spends seven to eight months a year living on fairgrounds as he travels to perform.
“I spend more time on fairgrounds than living at home,” he said, adding that he enjoys the atmosphere at the American Legion fairs.
“They have big hearts,” he said. “They are a veterans organization, and typically those guys come in and they're a team. They get things done. They just have this camaraderie about them that gets things done.”
Allamon agrees. She has seen that work accomplished as a photographer behind the scenes and on a personal level as her husband, Chester, an American Legion member, has served as an officer on the fair's board of directors.
“The fair is a lot of work,” she said. “They will start planning after the fair closes. On Sept. 23, they will start planning next year's fair. It is a year-round proposition.”
Allamon said that work pays off in the form of contributions to the community. Earlier this year, the fair made a $25,000 donation to the Pitt Community College Foundation to expand an endowed scholarship it started in 2014 for vocational and technical students from Pitt County.
“The proceeds that are earned do so much in the community,” Allamon said. “There are many things that the fair sponsors, and I don't think the general public understands that.
“It's not just a carnival that comes to town once a year,” she said. “The Pitt County American Legion Agricultural Fair has a solid imprint on this community.”