Growing up in Northeast Tennessee, the third full week in August brought excitement to the air. School was starting. It was the week of my birthday and my sister’s birthday. And the Appalachian Fair was upon us.
Clara Mae, my mother, was the ultimate Appalachian Fair connoisseur. She bought the equivalent of a season pass each year, and was thrilled to attend almost every night—if not every night—that the fair was open. She had grown up in Gray (still Gray Station to old-timers and their relatives, like myself), and seeing all of her old friends and classmates from years gone by turned my normally introverted mom into an extrovert. After walking the fairground and admiring many of the exhibits—from the livestock to quilts to giant pumpkins—she would take a seat outside either the 4-H or the Farm and Home building, a busy spot from which all evening long she would see and greet people she knew from her school days.
Mom grew up on a farm less than three miles from the fairgrounds. She was an only child and a hard worker who helped her mom and dad, tending to crops (they grew corn, tobacco, beans and potatoes), milking cows, gathering eggs from the chicken house and the like. The Appalachian Fair was an annual event for their household, and I am so glad she passed on her appreciation for the fair to my siblings and me.
Fair Week for our family actually started before the big event opened to the public. Mom would have us enter various arts and crafts, photos and sometimes even baked goods into the exhibit competitions. We did not enjoy this endeavor, of course, until the week of the fair when we would see if we had won any prizes. We each usually won at least one ribbon, along with a few dollars. Some years, we would spray paint and decal cardboard ice cream containers (which she would pick up for free from the Johnson City PET Dairy office), which resulted in homemade trashcans. A macramé belt I’d made in Brownies won a blue ribbon more than once (even though entries were supposed to be limited to that year’s creations—shhhhh!). A baby blanket a neighbor had helped me crochet won a ribbon as well. I still have the blanket with a red ribbon attached.
It was a different time, and once we reached a certain age (too young by today’s standards, I’m sure), Mom let us have the run of the fairgrounds, and we would check in with her to drop off freebies we’d picked up, to ask for ice cream money or just to make sure she was there. At the Barnyard Nursery, we’d watch with wonder as ducklings and chicks scampered around, chasing each other, sliding down slides and such. The wildlife exhibit was another popular stop, and I fondly recall standing on my tiptoes, trying to peek into the big pool of various fish before we visited the other animals on display.
Another favorite was a little chapel for kids, set up in a trailer, if I remember correctly. It was not far from the concert area and was air-conditioned—a welcome break from the August heat. In addition to the cooler temperature inside, it was quiet and peaceful, a stark contrast to the carnival chaos outside. We would watch a video with Christian themes, and afterward pick a prize out of the treasure box. The people were always so nice and friendly, and my siblings and I always felt welcome there.
The 4-H building also was a regular stop on our route, as my mother was a big believer in the four H’s. My oldest sister even worked in the 4-H building for at least one year. We’d stalk the biscuit-making demonstrations until it was time for the mini biscuits to come out of the oven. I can taste them to this day. We could wash the free biscuits down with a free drink from the Coolie booth or a courtesy cup of water in a paper cone from another vendor.
As we walked through the commercial buildings, if she was with us, Mom loved to stop and register to win various prizes. A week or so later, my dad would complain about the sales calls these entries produced. Ha! Mom didn’t win often, but once she won big—the prize was a giant green stuffed bunny that was probably four or five feet tall, maybe bigger. It was much taller than I was at the time, that’s for sure. I don’t know what ever became of that bunny, but it sat in the corner of my parents’ bedroom for a long time and still makes me smile when I think about it. Speaking of rabbits, we’d stop and get a free Polaroid made with the local country station WXBQ’s mascot, some person dressed in a brown rabbit costume, complete with its ears sticking out of a white cowboy hat, an orange bandana and green pants with suspenders. We’d also pick up a “round tuit” from the Barnes Exterminating booth, where my mom would stop and talk to the family—friends of ours. Years later, I would end up working the fair booth for them a time or two.
Of course, I can’t forget the midway. The rides and games were both thrilling and scary, and we looked forward to the one or two days of fair week when some sort of a deal—in the form of little discount tickets you could get at McDonald’s, I think, or an all-you-can-ride wristband—was available. That was usually the only day we were allowed to participate. From the typical kiddie rides in the form of boats, cars or motorcycles that go in a circle to the traditional carousel and everything in between—like the Flying Bobs, Tilt-a-Whirl or that black spider attraction—the carnival rides were both exhilarating and frightening. Riding the giant Ferris wheel each year was something special, and we were sad each year when it disappeared from the Gray Station skyline.
It seems the heyday of county fairs like the Appalachian Fair may have passed, but I hope not. It is a connection to my childhood, to my mother, to my grandparents and beyond. Taking in the sights, sounds and smells of “the fair in Gray” is something I delighted in sharing with my own children back in 2012, the year my mother passed away. From the top of the Ferris wheel, my daughter and I could see her final resting place. The cemetery is a fitting spot for her, for my grandparents and for my great-grandparents. In the shadow of the Ferris wheel, amidst the sounds of the crowds and the concerts, it is a reminder of our past, of time’s passing, of these fleeting moments, which we will hold onto for years to come.