The Neshoba County Fair, located in the red clay hills outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, marks the sweet spot of all that is sacred in the South: family, friends, good food, and hospitality. I should know. As a hometown girl, I’ve attended nearly every year of my life.
Spread out over 60 acres, the fair operates like a self-contained city for one week each year, complete with a post office and more than 600 neon-colored wooden cabins arranged into neighborhoods with names such as Happy Hollow, Founders’ Square, and Sunset Strip. Each July, at one end of Happy Hollow, I set up camp in my family’s cabin, on a bottom bunk, surrounded by 30 of my nearest (and mostly dearest) friends and family. All in one room. (Cue the “John Boy” jokes.)
Southern literary icon Willie Morris called it a “combination camp meeting, picnic, recital, amusement park, music jamboree, race track, and political rally...[with] no institution quite like it in America.” It’s not that Willie was wrong, but the 120-year-old campground fair, the oldest one in the United States, embodies so much more than that.
It’s the community timeline. When I lived in New York and didn’t make it home as often as Momma would have liked, her Sunday school ladies would smother me in hugs whenever I’d return, exclaiming, “I haven’t seen you in two fairs!”
It’s the most desired piece of real estate. Cabins are nearly impossible to buy; they are passed down from generation to generation. I know divorced couples who were more ensnarled in the battle for the fair cabin than for custody of their offspring. It’s that important.
It’s the stomping grounds of good ole tree-stump politicking. Every politician in the game shows up to press the flesh. When I was too young to lean red or blue, Ronald Reagan announced his bid for the Presidency from the Grandstand podium.
It’s finding ways to keep cool. You’ll see fans in every shape, size, and rpm, plus kiddie pools and giant toy water guns. My brothers and I hid more than our fair share of water balloons under the sawdust along Happy Hollow. I’m sure I still owe someone an apology.
It’s where summer romances blossom and fade, all within a week. Walk around the racetrack on Saturday night holding hands with your “fair boyfriend.” Break up on Tuesday. Lick your wounds with a deep-fried corndog and fresh-squeezed lemonade from Lindsey’s Lemonade Stand at the Midway. And find a new boy to dance with in the sawdust at the Pavilion Wednesday night.
It’s a serious celebration of the Southern stomach. Spoiling your appetite with funnel cakes and Polish sausages at the Midway is a rite of passage. Each cabin owner trots out the home cooking, with a week’s worth of menus that would make the late Edna Lewis, the grande dame of Southern cooking, swoon. And the holy trinity of Southern-fried goodness always makes a guest appearance: chicken, okra, and green tomatoes.
It’s late nights on porches and impromptu jam sessions. Last year, that led to the ceremonial passing of the mason jar…I think.
It’s watching the horse races from the back of a pickup truck or a cabin porch. And anyone worth their souvenir T-shirt has scars from the Chair Races: a mad rush of lawn chairs bound together with duct tape--all angling for a front-row seat for the Miss Neshoba County Pageant or other nighttime entertainment. But to truly describe the fair--well, it’s enough to make the most seasoned fairgoers throw up their hands and say, “Just come, y’all.” And we mean it.
The Neshoba County Fair: 16800 State 21 South, Philadelphia, MS 39350; www.neshobacountyfair.org. dates: July 24-31. Day tickets, $15; season tickets, $30 ages 10 and up.
You don‘t need red clay-stained feet to experience the fair like a seasoned regular. Here are a few tips.
Lay of the land: The fair encompasses 60 acres of cabins and attractions. Most of the action takes place around Founders’ Square (the Pavilion), the Midway, the racetrack/Grandstand, the livestock barns, and the Exhibit Hall.
Best day to go: On the first Saturday, hit up the flea market, the Heart O’ Dixie Triathlon, and the rodeo finals. On Thursday, only hard-core fairgoers remain, the horse racing is in full swing and political rhetoric is at its height, with an appearance by the Governor.
How to swing an invite to sit on a porch: Step 1: Ask to use the bathroom. Step 2: On your way out, ask for something cold to drink. Both will be readily obliged 99.9% of the time--your “porch sit” invite is just a smile and handshake away.
The bite that says it all: A deep-fried corndog and tangy, fresh-squeezed lemonade from Lindsey’s Lemonade Stand at the Midway―a fair institution.
Best place to watch the horse races: Mingling with the folks in pickup trucks and lawn chairs pulled up to the fence in turn two. You might even find a friendly wager.
Best chance to catch a jam session: Walk around the cabins between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. Best one in town is at Cabin 232 at the end of Happy Hollow. After the “set,” the musicians lead a procession up and down the Hollow, New Orleans-style.
Best spot for people-watching: On a wooden bench on the east side of Founders’ Square, under the oak trees.