Reminiscence: It’s Fair time

The Chesterfield County Fair Association opens its 97th Annual Chesterfield County Fair this Friday. As the fair association’s historian, Mary Perkinson Chalkley takes a look back at the event’s history.

Mary Chalkley’s earliest memories of the fair were when she was able to compete with the Hickory Road 4-H club. The year was 1946.

“The fair was all about competition,” she said. “That was the most fun.” During one of those early years of membership, Chalkley and her sister each raised a Black Angus cow and entered them for competition.

“They could only be grain fed, no grass or onions from the field,” she said. “We also would curl the steer’s hair, to make it look good.” The funniest part of her entry was trying to get the steer to the viewing area for judging.

“I remember my daddy had to lead my steer out so far to help me get it to the judging area,” she said. Laughing, she added, “It was a big steer.” Entering her steer also became a fundraiser for the club. After judging, the animals were bid on by food stores. As a ribbon winner, Chalkley said, Safeway food store bought her prized steer and raised $400 for the 4-H club.

In the early days, farmers would bring their crops in for judging, setting up booths representing their community lodges and competing for the best display. Tobacco, grain and vegetable crops were displayed to bring out the best color and fanfare to earn bragging rights for the best looking booth.

“I remember the biggest competition was between the Granges; Beach and Woodpecker Lodge,” she said. “They were always trying to out beat each other. They would have the prettiest displays of their grain and tobacco crops.” Women also participated, bringing their sewing, hand work and baked items in to compete against their neighbors and home demonstration clubs for ribbons.

Chalkley said the first Chesterfield County Fair was held in 1911. It has been held continuously every year, with the exception of two years during wartime.

“The fair came about when several farmers wanted a place to come together and proudly show and display their different items they raised on their farm,” she said. “They also wanted a place where they could gather to meet friends they would only see once a year. This was the beginning spirit of competition and it continues today and is recognized by the awarding of ribbons and premiums.”

Some of the original founders of the fair association included family names like the Watkins, McKesson, Winfree, Moseley, Davis, Hening, Cogbill, Moore, Gay and Albright.

The fair opened as a two-day event. Membership to the association was $1 and admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. In 1947, a four-day event was held. From 1950 to 1964, the fair became a three-day event with a jump in the membership cost to $1.50. Adult tickets were 60 cents and children’s admission was 30 cents.

Through the years, the event grew to six days then to nine days and even 11 days before returning to the nine-day event that it is today. Membership to the association is $6, and admission to the fair is $7 for adults and $3 for children.

For the first 75 years, the fairgrounds were located directly behind the old county jail building.

“A fence divided the main courthouse area from the fairgrounds,” she said. “The fairgrounds contained many wooded buildings. There was a 4-H building, a Red Cross building, a cattle building, a hog building, an arts and crafts building and a Hening Food building. These buildings were used for many years until the county, one by one, tore them down and replaced them with two large metal buildings and one brick building.”

The site also held a large race track with a wooden grandstand. The grandstand was eventually replaced with concrete stands donated to the county by Moore’s Field, according the Chalkley.

As the county grew, so did its government. Eventually, the brick building was taken over by the county’s engineering and utilities departments. Half of the food building was being used by the general services’ building and grounds employees and, in the end, the arts and craft building was taken to house county records.

“The year 1987 witnessed the end to having a fair at the Courthouse,” said Chalkley. The following year the fair moved to the county airport. “One of the hanger buildings was used for arts and crafts and an area for the fair office. Traffic was horrible that year. It was backed up all the way to Chester.”

In 1989, the county officially designated the land across from L.C. Bird High School as the new fairgrounds, and it has continued there each year.

One of the first food vendors was Wood’s United Methodist Church. “They set up behind the old jail,” Chalkley said. “They used a wash tub to keep the soft drinks cold.”

Later on, when more buildings were built, more food vendors arrived, mostly nonprofit organizations. The longest running food vendor today is the Beach Community Grange, which has a reputation for its chicken and dumplings and Brunswick Stew. Over the years, these vendors have been joined by for-profit vendors from all over the region selling a wide-variety of food, crafts and trinkets.

Entertainment in the early days had the same group perform each day. Harness racing was a big hit in the oval racetrack.

“Many Grand Ole Opry singers performed, such as Ronnie McDowell, Porter Wagner and Little Jimmy Dickens,” Chalkley said. “In later fairs, there was a different group performing each day.”

Chalkley remembers the midway rides, but said as a young girl there were only two or three rides. “There was always a Ferris wheel,” she said.

The Miss Chesterfield County Fair pageant continues to take place today, as well as bingo and musical entertainment, including the popular Elvis impersonator. There are also more opportunities for competition, like the sack race, a hot dog eating contest and a baby contest. With the county being more urban today with fewer farms, the fair will be bringing an exotic petting zoo in for the children.

Chalkley said when she was a young girl she can remember her parents as always being members of the fair association. She became an official member in her late 20s and has been an active volunteer, serving as a fair officer in 1966, assistant secretary from 1968 to 1982 and secretary from 1982 until 1994. For over 40 years, she has served as coordinator for the Arts & Crafts Building. Last year, 1,365 items were checked in for judging in nine divisions. With the changes in demographics in the county, Chalkley has also seen changes in the entries.

“Sewing [items] has fallen off. That’s the only thing that has really declined. Art work and photography are very popular now,” she said. Most unusual? “A 60-pound watermelon came in last year.”

Chalkley expects that the fair will make it to its 100th year and hopes she will be there, too.

“It is the longest running thing that Chesterfield County has,” she said. “Attendance is a big part of its success. You need big attendance.”

Signage has been a big issue with the county. No longer are signs able to be posted along the highway informing folks that the fair has arrived. But word gets out, premium books are picked up at a quick pace and everyone plans their activities around their favorite events.

“There is something about a fair,” Chalkley said. “It’s the time of year that people look forward to; [sort of marking] the end of summer.”

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