Martybiniasz / CC BY-SA

August 12, 2020; Stateline

County fairs, with their smells, sights, and sounds of demolition derbies, funnel cake, rodeo queens, midway barkers—and, of course, mules, giant watermelons, and pigs—typically draw millions of Americans in late summer and fall to nearly 2,000 locales across America. But not this year. More than 80 percent are canceled due to the pandemic, harming local economies. Illinois’s 104 county fairs generated $170 million in 2019; Iowa’s produced $327 million in spending, and North Carolina’s more than $24 million in revenues.

County fairs are a veritable national tradition, a reminder of our agricultural heritage, an homage to our competitive spirit (think pageants, pickles, and tractor pulls), a tribute to our volunteerism, and an important contribution to the local economy. Though originally organized to celebrate agriculture (the first was organized in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1811 with $70 in prize money paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine, and sheep), and most still do, these fairs also excel in entertaining a far wider swath of the population with rides, entertainment, beauty pageants, and, of course, food—the greasier, the better. Some county fairs are huge: the Los Angeles County Fair generates $68 million in a typical year in gross receipts, attracting over a million visitors. The Wilson County, Tennessee fair garners nearly 500,000 visitors, and smaller fairs often surpass 100,000. The county fair tradition, for the most part, appears to be thriving.

With the exception of California (where two-thirds of the local fairs are operated by a state agency), most county fairs are sponsored, and their fairgrounds owned, by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, primarily 501c5 tax-exempt entities, an IRS classification reserved for agricultural, horticultural and labor organizations. This kind of nonprofit, however, was not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program as 501c3 organizations were, and thus lacked access to the government’s forgivable loans to keep employees paid.

The Martin County Fair Association (Florida), for example, chartered in 1959, donated $225,000 in free facility rentals to other nonprofits (the Fire Department, baseball teams, United Way, food bank), gave out more than $250,000 in cash to “the youth of Martin County,” and has over 130 members who last year gave more than 10,000 hours to the weeklong event. Parking lot revenues enabled the fair to purchase hogs that were then sold at auction—generating both income and meat—then donated to six local food pantries.

For decades and even centuries, county fairs have been keeping local money in the community, part of the “Buy Local” hymnal and the circular economy we sometimes long for. But county fairs are also a clear reminder of our racist history. Near Richmond, Virginia, the Chesterfield County Colored Farmers Fair, beginning in 1919, was held the weekend after the white fair—at the same location and often with the same attractions. It was only in 1968 that the fairs “integrated,” with the County Fair Association Constitution dropping a reference to its white membership. Kentucky’s Lexington Colored Fair, until it ended during World War II, was one of the nation’s largest and most successful Black fairs, attracting as many as 40,000 visitors. Every state in the Jim Crow South had dozens of these Black-owned and operated entities. But written information is hard to find—white newspapers only covered the white fairs, and the Black press was primarily an urban phenomenon.

This tradition persists today in North Carolina, where the Chatham County Agricultural and Industrial Association celebrated its 69th birthday last year, perhaps the only remaining Black-run fair in the country. Begun in 1950 by the two Black county extension agents, it was an annual coming together, a celebration of the harvest and local talent and the opportunity to share vital agricultural and homemaking knowledge. Though its nonprofit board is still largely made up of the descendants of its founders, the fair’s recent music offerings—Encuesta Norteña, a “Hispanic band”; traditional old-time American banjo; Progressive Jazz/Funk/African; as well as traditional R&B—attract a new generation of attendees. And though the Chatham County Fair only generates about $37,000 in revenues (daily fees are $6 for adults and free for children), it owns 12 acres of land now prime development property near Raleigh and Chapel Hill. What will this Black-led nonprofit do with this valuable asset? Will it hold on, or cash it in and invest in other community services?

What about white-only fairs? Perhaps the standout is the Neshoba County Fair, with the moniker of “Mississippi’s Giant House Party.” Perhaps best known as the venue for candidate Ronald Reagan’s 1980 speech endorsing states’ rights, the fairground is about seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town associated with the 1964 murders of Civil Rights activists Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. An array of 600 cabins that can each bed thirty people—100-percent-white-owned in a county that is 25 percent black (Philadelphia is 47 percent Black)—lines the fairgrounds. These two- and three-story structures, rimmed with porches on every floor, are each owned by an extended family and organized into neighborhoods with names like Beverly Hills, Happy Hollow, Green Acres, and Bourbon Strip. This weeklong celebration every year in July (except for 2020) boasts Mississippi’s only legal horse racing track, a parade of political candidates running in the state’s August primaries, and the typical midway, competitions, and performances. Over 25,000 attend the fair each year. Though supposedly attracting a more diverse audience these days, the Neshoba County Fair was described in 2002 as a Disneyesque “Southland,” a racially segregated imagining of a Mississippi town, a destination for a white-only holiday.

Vestiges of white supremacy at county fairs are not confined to the South. In 2016, a coalition that included the local NAACP petitioned the Wayne County Fair in Ohio to ban the sale of Confederate merchandise. And in 2017, a citizens’ group began a petition drive to forbid the sale of Confederate flags at the Wood County Fair in northwest Ohio. This past June, however, the Ohio Legislature rejected a measure to ban these flags at county and independent fairs.

County fairs are a snapshot of the best of rural America—our striving, hard work, generosity, and volunteerism; our colorful stories and diverse traditions; and our community mindedness.  But looked at more closely, they are also a reminder of our deeply ingrained racism and that “separate” was never “equal.” County fairs have the potential to be vital spaces that bring a community’s diverse members together in sharing and celebration – as long as they are perceived as welcoming and where “non-traditional” voices are included in their decision-making venues. Rural communities need to be reunited in these divisive days, as well as firmly connected to their broader regions, and county fairs can play a key role in both arenas while continuing to generate local income to meet community needs. We miss our county fairs in 2020, and hope that the Congress seriously considers passing the Agricultural Fairs Rescue Act, introduced on July 30, 2020, but so far sitting quietly in the House Committee on Agriculture. Our communities need these nonprofits, and they need the government’s help too.—Debby Warren