On Tuesday, 101 years to the day of the launch of the first-ever Pitt County fair, the gates will reopen to begin what is considered to be another historic year.
The Pitt County American Legion Agricultural Fair, which celebrated the century mark with a six-day run in 2019, is among county fairs across the country working to make a comeback after being closed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have had six (fairs) in the state to cancel so far, but the others have had theirs,” Pitt County fair Executive Director Phyllis Ross said. “This year’s (anniversary) 101. Since we didn’t have it last year, I said we can’t count that ... but we’ve been around a long time.”
Last year was the third time in Pitt County fair history that the event was called off entirely, with other suspensions coming during World War II in 1943 and following Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
This year’s fair, with the theme, “Time Keeps Ticking,” appears to pick up right where the last one left off. Coming back will be favorite fair foods, including funnel cakes, cotton candy and candied apples, along with popular past performers.
Frequent fair-goers will recall the magic and comedy routine of hypnotist Alan Sands; Marc Dobson, the One Man Band; and Dakota and Friends Dinosaur Road Show, along with local performers Cyrus Taylor, Matt Livingston and Marye Amanda McDaniel.
“They were acts that we had already hired for last year, and they all came back except for one, the aquatic acrobats,” Ross said. “They had a conflict; they couldn’t come.”
Taking the acrobats’ place is a new act, “Cousin Minnie,” a tribute to Country Music Hall of Fame member Minnie Pearl. The impersonation is one of four different acts that Amanda Stiffler brings to the fair. The children’s entertainer also will appear as a fairy, a living statue and ringmaster at an old-fashioned flea circus.
Also new to this year’s fair are two major amusement rides, the Itsy Bitsy and the Sky Hawk. Marc Janas, director of public relations for Powers Great American Midways, said the rides, both about 100 feet tall, are among the only ones of their kind in the country.
Itsy Bitsy is a gondola wheel with what appears to be a giant spider at the center. The fabricated creature moves up and down as the ride is in motion, revealing a popular LED light display on its underside. On the Sky Hawk, riders lie face forward in a “Superman” pose as they spin and are lifted higher along the supporting tower.
“That’s the only portable one of its kind in the country,” Janas said. “They put a permanent one in Orlando, but that’s the only mobile one so we’re proud to have that. It’s very popular.”
Those rides, along with about three dozen others were turning heads this week as the fairground at 3910 Martin Luther King Highway began filling more than a week before the fair was scheduled to start.
“Because they see the rides up they think the fair’s going on,” Ross said, laughing. “Of course, we’ve had phone call after phone call.”
Powers’ employees and attractions arrived in town earlier than expected due to the cancellation of the fair in Concord. Cabarrus County officials said low COVID-19 vaccination rates, coupled with community spread of the virus, made the fair a public health risk.
“Fortunately, this is the first cancellation that we’ve had this year,” Janus said. “Last year, it was a whole other ballgame.”
After 2020 cancellations due to COVID-19, Janus said Powers has worked steadily this season, traveling up and down the East Coast to various fairs and festivals. The company is booked through November at numerous North Carolina events, including the State Fair from Oct. 14-24.
“It’s just been gangbusters,” he said. “Folks want to get out; they want to enjoy themselves. Especially as we get back into county fair and state fair season, folks want to carry on that tradition, and the multiple generations want to come out and enjoy their time and do that together like they’ve always done in the past. I think it gives them a sense of normalcy and a sense of enjoyment.”
With some exceptions, 2021 should look much like a normal year at Pitt County’s fair. Hand sanitizer, formerly most plentiful near livestock exhibits, will be available throughout the fairgrounds. Masks are optional outdoors but are required inside exhibit halls. Signs will alert visitors to the fact that there is an assumed risk of contracting COVID-19 at any public event.
The county health department will offer free COVID-19 (Moderna) vaccines for ages 18 and older from 4-8:30 p.m. daily in the exhibit hall.
Exhibit Hall Director Mary-Anne Brannon said concerns about the potential spread of the virus prompted fair officials to cancel competitions for baked goods this year. Entries in food conservation categories, such as canning of fruits and vegetables, will be accepted, as will decorated cakes and cakes for the auction (to benefit the Ayden-Grifton High School horticulture program) because no judges taste those foods.
She expects the cancellation of the pie contest to be especially disappointing for visitors on Wednesday, which is senior citizens day at the fair. Traditionally, senior adults given special admission to the fair in the early afternoon have been treated to a piece of one of the prize-winning pies.
“They loved it,” Brannon said. “I know they’re going to miss that pie. We’re just going to have to say,‘Well, hopefully next year.’”
Brannon said concerns over COVID-19 have made it challenging for her to find workers and volunteer judges, who are often retirees. Experts from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and local Master Gardeners volunteers will continue to judge flowers, field crops and other horticultural categories.
Competitions, which in the past were exclusively for Pitt County residents, have in recent years drawn entries from a wider area as some county fairs have ceased to operate. Whether or not people will travel from across the region to enter this year is anyone’s guess.
“It could go either way,” Brannon said. “People have been at home. They might have done more, for instance needle craft and sewing. They might decide the don’t want to risk coming out here to enter, so we don’t know.
“We’re prepared,” she said. “We’re prepared to put on a good show.”
For more information, visit pittfair.org.