Every year when summer comes around, they stretch a banner 'cross the main street in town. You can feel something's happenin' in the air … getting ready for the county fair. -Bruce Springsteen
It's the fluttery feeling of love in the pit of a young man's stomach as he timidly extends his hand to grasp hers as they stroll along the dust of the midway. It's the piercing gaze of a meticulous judge as she lifts a mason jar into a path of light , revealing the care of the home canner stored within a tiny sea of summer tomatoes. It's the gleam in the jeweled crown as it is placed on the head of a new queen; a gleam only matched by the sparkle of youth in her hopeful eyes. It's the swell of pride in the chest of a young farmer, ten years of age, as he methodically brushes the lush hair of his prize angus cow one last time before leading her to the judging ring.
This is the McCracken County Fair; a multifaceted event that ushers in a plethora of emotions for those who participate in her activities. Steeped in tradition and nostalgia, it reflects a way of life that once seemed relegated to a quaint memory, and yet is now, more than ever, poised to make a comeback.
The United States had yet to reach its hundredth birthday in 1859. Congress and President Buchanan admitted Oregon as the 33rd state, Abraham Lincoln embarked on a speaking tour after losing his Senate bit to Stephen Douglas, and organizers held the first McCracken County Fair on a 21 acre plot of land just south of town.
"The fair has always been a snapshot of a way of life," says Tom Emerson, fair historian and chair of the fair board from 1989 to 2003. "It played an important role in the community's cultural and agricultural background."
Regional residents brought their produce, goods, and animals to the fair, sharing their growing knowledge about farming with one another. "It was a way they learned."
The first fairgrounds boasted a floral hall, a half mile racetrack that was eventually enlarged to one mile, and a 5,000 seat grandstand. Packet boats brought many via river to Paducah, animals and produce in tow. Horse drawn wagons and surreys carried fairgoers the rest of the way. Organizers based admission costs on how many horses were needed to haul their goods and families or if one came simply on horseback or by foot.
Even though the fair provided educational and business opportunities as farmers learned about the latest equipment, techniques, and products, it was also a time of celebration and competition as families brought their best of the best, hoping to earn a few bragging rights.
The sounds of prize heifers, hard working mules, wooly ewes, and spiffed up pigs filled the air as farmers paraded their finest livestock before panels of judges. Vibrant reds, purples, oranges, and greens burst from bushel baskets as hand-picked produce such as tomatoes, turnips, peaches, and cabbage made their way onto the fairgrounds. The sweet scent of country molasses, the tang of home made vinegar, and the earthiness of home-brewed lager beer wafted across the fall air.
Most anything that was produced as part of daily, agrarian life could be judged. From manufactured items such as plows and saddles, to crops such as tobacco and cotton, to home food items such as cornbread and country ham, the artisanship of one's summer labors were on display.
The fair also served as a Paducah-wide community picnic with families camping out for several days. Entertainers oohed and awed the crowds with spectacular displays. As if plucked from the Wizard of Oz, fair organizers staged a daring display in 1874 with Professor Hemessley and his mammoth balloon. The aeronaut from St. Louis performed a number of feats on a trapeze attached to and suspended below the ballon. The fair program commented that "this balloon ascension and trapeze performance is, alone, worth more than the price of admission to the grounds."
Arion, the king of the high wire walkers and Niagra Falls wire-walking record holder once made an appearance during his first tour of the United States. At night, performances were on a "live electric wire, brilliantly illuminated with incandescent lights all over" where Arion, on his bicycle, presented "the most weird and dazzling exhibition."
Singers and musical groups and theatrical acts were common. Contests for fairgoers allowed for crowd participation and added entertainment value. One of the most popular was a chicken picking contest.
Moving the Show
The fair continued annually with various groups taking the reigns over the years. Each time a new group organized the fair, it was announced on the program as the first annual, giving McCracken County the distinction of having multiple first annual fairs.
The expansion of the railroad adjacent to the fairgrounds allowed fairgoers to take the Paducah and Memphis, Paducah and Elizabethtown, or the Steamboat line directly to the festivities. Continued growth in the industry necessitated the acquisition of the fairgrounds by the railroads, however, as new lines and switching yards were added to serve the growing Paducah population.
In 1893, the fair moved to the current location of Carson Park. The Paducah Fair and Exposition Association acquired the deed for the land, which, at the time, was still in the countryside. George and Mamie Thompson who sold the property for $385 stipulated that the fair could not provide "whiskey, brandy, rum or gin, or any other spiritous liquors, nor shall there be any gambling allowed other than those on honorable horse racing."
A new floral hall, which is still used today, was erected on the corner of the property along with grandstands and a half-mile racetrack. Exhibits, contests, and entertainments drew large crowds, and, for a period of time, the weeklong celebration was known as the Tri State Fair. Vaudeville acts performed, babies competed in pageants, and horses and riders from hundreds of miles around raced their way around the track to the cheers of a packed grandstand.
The ownership of the land changed hands a couple of times, but the fair remained in place until a property sale in 1923 nearly brought it to a halt. For several years, the fair was nearly homeless, traveling around the county, often changing location each night. Heath, Reidland, and Lone Oak High Schools served as hosts for several years.
The property along 28th Street where the fair moved in 1893 remained in flux and seemed destined to be broken up into residential lots as the city of Paducah expanded westward. Luther Carson, founder of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Paducah, bought the property in 1936 to the chagrin of real estate developers and gifted it to McCracken County to be used as fairgrounds, exhibition of of livestock and farm products, and for the training, exercising, and racing of horses.
The deed stipulated that if the property ever ceased to be used for such purposes that after two years ownership was to be transferred to the Friendly Home, Paducah's orphanage. The agreements in the deed still remain in place. The property falls under the jurisdiction of the county even though it lies within city boundaries, and, if it is not used according to Carson's wishes, ownership reverts to the Easter Seals West Kentucky.
Ups and Downs
With a permanent home, the fair continued uninterrupted with the exception of the years during World War II due to the war effort. The quality of the fair was often a topic of discussion around town.
Horse shows and racing remained a staple, but sideshows, which mostly consisted of "girlie shows," cropped up, making the fair a less than family friendly event. Public drunkenness and gambling further undermined the reputation, and many of the longstanding traditions such as animal shows, floral and garden exhibitions, and home crafts went by the wayside. Peddlers transformed Floral Hall into a market, taking the fair in a much more commercial direction.
In 1962, the South Paducah Kiwanis took over sponsorship. By then, the main attractions were midway rides, musical acts, motorcycle and car races, and auto stunt shows. Increasingly, members of the club wanted to return the fair to agrarian roots.
A New Yet Old Direction
The South Paducah Kiwanis Club reached out to 4-H, Future Farmers of America, Homemakers, and the county Extension Service to revitalize the McCracken County Fair. Farm animal shows, vegetable and crop exhibits, and crafts and canned goods were added back to the list of activities; and in 1989, Floral Hall was used for the first flower show in nearly 20 years.
Community members participated in the new talent show competition, and beauty pageants for babies, little miss and mister, and teens were reinstated in 1986. In the pageants' inaugural year, Miss Jerri Lynn Zimmerman was crowned McCracken County Fair Queen. She went on to become Miss Illinois, third runner up in Miss America, and television star Jeri Ryan.
"The fair returned to something that wasn't just entertainment," says Tommy Brown, fair chairperson from 2003 through 2012. "It was a chance for the community to get involved and participate. That's what we want. The people of our area have plenty of opportunities to be a part of this long tradition."
The change back to the traditions of a country fair paid off. Just like in the 1800s, Floral Hall bustles with activity as homemakers, gardeners, and artists bring their best to be judged. Rows of jellies and jams, pickles, beans, and home-canned vegetables are arranged in perfectly aligned rows. Emanating the hues of summer, each seems to stretch forward in pride, begging to be seen. A judge carefully inspects plates of cakes, biscuits, cornbread, brownies, fudge, and more, shutting out all the bustling activity around her to focus on the artisanship at hand. Her steely gaze ceases only when her eyes close and a small bite of each culinary jewel is lifted to her mouth for the final test. Rows of flowers are thoroughly and gingerly inspected while home crafts and art are placed on display. The bleating of ewes and goats and the mooing of cows resonate from Carson Park and drift down the nearby streets of Paducah, unconventional sounds in the midst of the city.
"Fair attendance had hit a real low," says Tom Emerson who helped pioneer a return to the fair's roots. "Now it's five, six, seven times what it was. And we have more participation from the public, which is exactly what we wanted to accomplish."
Into the Future
John and Alyssa Boseman stroll through Floral Hall with their two children Zachary and Kate. They carefully examine the exhibits, and Alyssa takes special notice of the canned tomatoes. "I tried my hand at canning for the first time last year," she says. "I'll have to enter some next year!"
At 32 years of age, John and Alyssa are part of an American generation that is largely urban-minded. "At one time, everyone was a farmer to some extent," says John. "We just aren't that way anymore. Alyssa and I weren't raised that way, and the majority of kids now aren't either. But I think we are all growing somewhat tired of just the electronic, modern life. We do want to know and experience those things that ground us in our human experience. I think that is what we see at the fair, and I think it is what we want to add to our children's life experiences."
Those words are music to the ears of Denice Cicardo, new chair of the fair board. "We want as much of the community involved as possible," she says. "It is about getting the family to the fairgrounds, spending time together. We went to a convention in Louisville, and that's what we heard over and over. People want the fair to return to a family event."
The McCracken County fair has been getting there for many years already, and Denice is excited about even more changes to come. "We heard about chicken rodeos, greased pig contests, and all sorts of activities that families can try. We've already had success with events like the wiener dog races. Lots of people participated last year, and a lot of people came out to watch. Spectators even came with their dogs to watch the other dogs race! We expect twice as many dogs to enter this year."
While Denice is only implementing a few new ideas this year, she has big plans for the future. "This is my first year, and I am learning and trying to not put too much on my plate; but we are adding some new events, and next year will be even better!
"We're getting some of the schools involved this year with a 5K race. There will be a Blues and BBQ night with Lew Jetton and Alonzo Pennington. In the future, I can see bringing back events like the greased pig contest, pie eating contests, three legged races and more. We can have family day on a Saturday, and families can come spend a day on the fairgrounds together. Those are the kinds of memories we need to be making."
On an early summer day, the Bosemans and hundreds of other families can participate in one of the oldest traditions in McCracken County. Like those in 1859, we will all take a moment to breathe, savor life, and know that even the simplest of things keep us grounded and often give us the greatest joys. Like Bruce Springsteen, we too shall sing "County fair, county fair, everybody in town'll be there. So come on, we're goin' down there."
More information on the McCracken County Fair can be found at mccrackencountyfair.com.