[This blog post comes from Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist in the Special Collections Section.]
The North Carolina State Fair, which first opened in late October of 1853, is one of the state’s premier fall attractions. In that spirit, this blog post poses to all State Fair goers: What particular interests and expectations have drawn you to the State Fair, and what special memories have you taken away? Not surprisingly, a number of the Private Collections offer glimpses of the North Carolina State Fair that add to the breadth of our collective State Fair experience, now spanning one hundred and sixty-three years. Four such collections are featured here. Their dates range from 1853 to 1921, with three being penned within the first three decades of that auspicious opening event of 1853.
From the Margaret Eliza Cotten Journal, 1853-1854. PC.1977: Margaret was a seventeen-year-old St. Mary’s School student living at home on Blount Street, Raleigh. She has left us, through her journal, one of the earliest, and maybe the only surviving privately recorded comment about the State Fair before its formal opening. On the night of October 3, 1853, Margaret opined, “I don’t know when I have been to a party or anything of the kind, [and] wish someone would give a large, nice one. Our city will be quite alive in a few weeks, I hope however, with the ‘Fair.’ I hope it may not be a failure – it is high time for ‘old Rip’ [town of Raleigh] to wake up. I think we are also to have a temperance convention, or something of that kind, on the 17th.”
Margaret’s subsequent comments indicated that the first fair was indeed a success, and quite the place to see and to be seen. Evidenced by her journal and the typical mindset of a teenager, the fair and its social aspects loomed far larger in her mind than the first State Temperance Convention. Not surprisingly, Margaret made no further comments about the latter event, though she had hoped that the Temperance Convention would attract some of her family and friends from Tarboro, Edgecombe County, her place of birth.
From the Kenelm Harrison Lewis Papers, 1834-1907. PC.162: These papers include a letter written by another student at St. Mary’s School, Ida B. A. [surname uncertain]. Ida was probably a friend of the daughter of Kenelm Lewis, Annie Harrison Lewis (1861-1943), a student at St. Mary’s School during the same time period. Writing probably to a male friend, on October 23 and 24, 1877, Ida described two visits to the Fair. The second time was especially “splendid,” and involved doing “almost exactly what I did the day before, only [I] did more of it. I was introduced to several very nice gentlemen and enjoyed myself hugely.” Specific events that impressed her included hearing a good band, seeing “elegant [military] drilling” and betting on “elegant [horse] racing,” and consuming delicious candy and cake. Additionally, she was pleased at “seeing so many nice folks from home,” including the New Berne boys, even though they “were not the right set,” but instead “grown young men.” Ida was also pleased that her friend, Lila, looked very stylish “for the first time in her life.” Lila apparently cut quite a figure wearing a dark brown dress and a brown straw hat trimmed with a cardinal scarf, and was “considered by a great many to be the prettiest girl on the grounds.”
From the Leonidas Lafayette Polk Papers, 1881. PC.849: The sole item in this collection is a letter dated September 1, 1881, written to L. L. Polk, 1888. It is from Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, former Confederate army commander, declining Polk’s invitation to attend the North Carolina State Fair because of prior business commitments in the Southwest. Johnston’s words express genuine disappointment: “I regret this infinitely. For I could find few gratifications in the world equal to that of meeting again the North Carolinians with whom I served in the most trying times that of their century have . . . [ever] known.”
From the Lillian Exum Clement Stafford Papers, PC.2084: The papers include one photograph of Mrs. George W. Vanderbilt (Edith), the year she served as president of the North Carolina State Fair. The image shows Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt, and Mary, Alice, “B,” and Kenlon (staff from the Biltmore estate?), riding in what appears to be an open-air fire engine. A glance at the photograph suggests that the group in the truck, especially Mrs. Vanderbilt, was attracting considerable notice from fair-goers on the ground, and that people-watching has long been one of the enduring attractions of the State Fair.
Significantly, the previous November, Lillian Exum Clement (not yet married), had been elected to the North Carolina General Assembly, becoming the first woman to serve in the state’s legislature. Her private papers indicate that she had welcomed Mrs. Vanderbilt to Raleigh in early February of 1921, and include a newspaper clipping describing the event (News and Observer, issue of February 3, 1921). The article said that Mrs. Vanderbilt had addressed a joint session of the House and Senate and subsequently attended a meeting of the Executive Committee of the N.C. Agricultural Society, where she was inducted as president of the 1921 State Fair. Mrs. Vanderbilt’s presence and address evoked the observation: “But few times in the history of the State has a woman been asked to address the General Assembly, and none has pleased them more….”
In celebration of the State Fair and its history and impact, please note the online offering through the State Library of North Carolina: http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/digital/statefair/. There is a section entitled “Blue Ribbon Memories,” that includes comments from various fair-goers. On an added note, Private Collections invites those with extensive and detailed recollections of the State Fair to consider offering those, perhaps coupled with other historically valuable private papers and photographs, as a possible donation. Please contact Fran Tracy-Walls, email@example.com for more information about donation guidelines and requirements.