August 13, 2008 Edition

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Fair continues
to be important
community event

Anna Lou Cook shows a quilt made by her mother that won first place in the 1938 County Fair.
Vivian Heyl
Staff Writer

This year marks the 84th anniversary of the Lawrence County Fair. Historically speaking the fair may have actually started somewhat earlier perhaps even as early as 1920.

"The fair began as the Tri-County Fair back in the early 1900s," said Martha Stovall Johnson of Imboden. "It was held at Imboden and the original fairground was located where Fair Park Acres is now."

Johnson, who is the daughter of Austin and Edith Stovall, previous owners of the Imboden Journal and later The Ozark Journal, found a copy of a 1923 Imboden Journal that belonged to her mother.

In this edition of The Imboden Journal published in September of 1923 the fair is listed as an upcoming event and although there is no number associated with the event, it does not appear to be the first fair. There is also a list of exhibit categories. They included field crops, clothing, livestock, needlework, garden produce, baked goods and other foods, canned goods, soap and many others.

"An article in the paper promises a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round," she said. "The AB Miller Entertainment Show provided the rides and other amusements. There were political speakers, as well, including Senator Thaddeus Caraway and Congressman William Oldfield.

Raye Henderson has some very early memories of the fair. "I was born in 1922, and I can remember going to the fair at a very young age. The first time I remember going I was almost three, and I remember my father carrying me into the fairgrounds," she said.

"When we paid to enter the grounds I got a little pink tag about the size of a quarter and my parents got blues ones about the size of a 50-cent piece."

Altha Murphy, who grew up in Annieville, remembers her family traveling five miles to Imboden in a wagon.

"Back then the fair was held in the fall. My daddy, Erastus Milgrim, always entered apples in the fair and he always won prizes with them. He also sold apples at the fair for 50 cents a bushel," she said.

"I remember that they always had a fortune teller who traveled with the carnival. She wanted to tell my father's fortune in exchange for some apples. He didn't want her to tell his fortune but he agreed to sell her a half-bushel of apples. She took the apples and told him she would get the money from her tent. He never saw her again."

Henderson said her favorite part of the fair was always the rides. "I loved the ferris wheel," she said. " It was a big ferris wheel, and I loved being able to see from the top of the wheel."

Murphy also loved the ferris wheel.

"We used to chop cotton to get money for the fair," she said. "Back then the carnival seemed much bigger. I remember riding the ferris wheel and the merry-go-round and the swings. There were all kinds of games and side shows as well."

Both ladies agreed the fair was a big event.

"It was the event we looked forward to all the year," said Henderson. "That and the Portia Picnic. They were the two biggest events of the year."

Johnson also said that a stage was built on the west end of the city park and the pageants were held there. "They were held outside back then and the crowns were made of cardboard and covered with aluminum foil to make them shine," she said. "The exhibit hall was in the old gym. The bleachers held the displays of canned goods, needlework and other things."

During World War II, the fair went through some hard times as there wasn't much money to spend. In 1942 the carnival didn't show up and local residents provided the entertainment.

"When the carnival didn't arrive, James Wells brought horses and gave rides," Johnson said. "They had to be resourceful during those years."

Viola Meadows recalled that everything was rationed during the war. "There wasn't any gas," she said. "You either walked or you used a horse for transportation. The fair was important to us but during the war it was much harder to do things."

J. Dot Foley recalled that in the early days of the fair the county Extension agent always announced the names of the kids showing off their animals. It was one of the events everyone waited for.

Sue DePriest Smith of Imboden was a prize-winning exhibitor who showed her first calf in 1941 at age eight. She won grand-champion during her first fair and later won it again at the state level.

Exhibiting cattle has changed a lot over the years.

It's much more complex now, according to Extension Agent Bryce Baldridge. "It takes countless hours of grooming and training to prepare an animal for the fair," Baldridge said.

Dot Foley also remembered that J.W. Best announced the pageants in the 1940s. Johnson said when she was growing up the pageants were called contests. She said she remembers being entered in the cute kiddie contest when she was a child in the 1950s. She wore a red corduroy jumper and won in 1951 or 52.

Meadows remembered that during the 1950s the schools would dismiss regular classes for a day and transport the students to Imboden to enter exhibits in the fair. "In the 1950s we would load the kids on a bus and take them to the fair to have their entries judged," she said.

Jean Jean also recalled that there was much more active participation during that period.

"There were people actually baking at the fair. They would make the food right there on the fairgrounds and then it would be judged," she said.

She also recalled a year when a student, Bonnie Spurlock, did a dressmaking exhibition at the fair.

Bonnie Spurlock Swan also recalled the event.

" I made a dress and then a duster. It was in 1957 and I was 14 years old," she said. "Jean asked me to do it. I attended Egypt school and she taught me home economics, and she was the Future Homemakers of America adviser at the school. People just stood and watched me. I cut the pattern out and then started sewing. I think they were amazed at my ability at such a young age."

"People looked forward to the fair all year long," said Anna Lou Cook. "It was a treat to go to the fair. We lived in the Clear Springs area. My grandmother, Mary Wilson, and my Mom, Irene Wilson Daniels, would take us when they could. I remember that it covered the whole area and back then it seemed huge to me.

"One year I won a chalk horse at the fair. Chalkware was often the prize a person won at the carnival games and that horse was beautiful to me. I still have it though it's lost much of its decoration," Cook said.

Cook's mother won a blue ribbon for a quilt in 1938.

"I still have the quilt and the tag that was attached to it. The ribbon has long since disappeared but I have kept the quilt," she said.

Margrhea Willmuth taught school at Imboden's Sloan-Hendrix School and remembers that the school would have a fair day each year. The teacher of each class and the room mothers would take the students to the fair.

"In addition to seeing all the exhibits and visiting the animals, the kids got to ride the rides and enjoy the carnival as well," she said. "It was a big day for them and they looked forward to it every year."

"I think that it is regrettable that there is not as much participation as there once was," Meadows said.

"The fair has been a standard bearer for education. I think the fair is a place where people can still see how things are made and what wonderful things people can do."

Fern Eaton said that the clothing entries were once very numerous. "There was so much clothing entered you couldn't find a place to put them. Now those entries are drastically reduced," she said.

Lillian Rooker remains optimistic about the fair entries. "Young people are still entering things in the fair. Food categories remain well represented and we're still seeing quite a bit of jams and jellies as well as other preserved foods."

The fair has seen many changes over the years. There is now an education building for the exhibits to be displayed in. There are new facilities for the animals that have been brought in to be judged, as well as the addition of a rodeo arena.

Jerry Foley, nephew of Dot Foley, served many years on the fair board including in the role of president and feels that the fair is good for the community.

"The fair brings people to Lawrence County from all over the state. Not just from all over the state but from all over the country," he said. "Our rodeo is a big draw."

The first sanctioned rodeo was held in 1981 with Don McKee as the stock contractor. The rodeo was held at the ball field in a makeshift arena.

Also in 1981 the Lawrence County Feeder Calf Association donated land to build a rodeo arena. Many people donated services and funds and countless more donated labor to help build the arena and make it a reality.

In 1985 the fair board began working with David Bailey who was producing the International Professional Rodeo Association rodeos, and in 1990 when Bailey went to Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association they switched with him. The 1981 rodeo brought 350 people to the county and in 2007 there were over 5000 in attendance with a gate of over $16,000.

James Ratliff, who is the current Lawrence County Fair Board president, said that the rodeo is one of the biggest draws in the state.

"People say our rodeo is one of the best in the state," Ratliff said.

"We held the rodeo on the baseball field using a chain link fence as our arena the first year. Folks brought lawn chairs and sat around the field to watch.

"The rodeo is one of our two top draws," Ratliff said. "The other is the car show."

The car show began in 1988 and has continued to grow each year. Pat and Sue Roby were instrumental in getting the show off the ground. The Robys said at first everyone was a little doubtful, but it has proven to be a real hit.

"The car show really added something to the fair," Ratliff said. "This year is going to be really big. We expect it to be outstanding with the most cars entered yet."

This year's car show will honor Randall Tate who is known for his expertise in restoring cars.

"Randall Tate builds cars," Sue Roby said. "We do interiors."

Tate has been diagnosed with cancer and has had to take a much less active role lately. He will be at the car show this year though.

"The fair is funded by attendance," said Sue Roby. "The larger our headcount, the better we fare when it comes to funding."

She said she thinks music is also a strong draw at the fair and that she looks forward to the performances each year.

On Wednesday there will be gospel singing in the new gym followed by an ice cream social. This year Thread of Hope will be performing. JR Rogers is also scheduled to play during the car show.

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