Mustard-smothered corn dogs, puffy pink cotton-candy clouds and swirling lights from carnival rides -- sure, fairgoers love to indulge their appetites and delight their senses. But the North Carolina Mountain State Fair also has a more serious mission: public education.
In a time when most folks get their edibles from supermarkets, it's easy to forget our true food suppliers: farmers.
"A lot of people don't even know who runs the Mountain State Fair," laments Ray Keeton, director of media relations for the Department of Agriculture and Customer Services -- the agency responsible for the annual event. "Its roots are in agriculture. The exhibits at the fair show the artistry, skill and history behind agriculture."
Fall, of course, has always been a critical time for farmers -- a day of reckoning, when money is either made or lost. State fairs originated as a way for farmers to celebrate a good harvest, to socialize, and to trade not only goods, but also good stories. Farm women swapped recipes and canning secrets, and competed for the cherished blue ribbon.
The first Western North Carolina State Fair took place in 1911 in Buncombe County. The four-day celebration featured agricultural contests and a parade of Confederate and Union Civil War veterans marching together. That tradition died in 1915, when a flood swept away the fairgrounds.
But one local fair prevailed against the ravages of war and famine: The Buncombe County Colored Agricultural Fair, begun in 1913, was held annually through World War I, the Great Depression andWorld War II, before finally ending in 1947.
Then, during the 1950s, the Buncombe County Agriculture and Livestock Exposition was housed in Day's Warehouse on Lyman Street in Asheville. But that tradition also faded. It would be another 30 years before the next major, state-sponsored fair took place.
As Americans move into a new century, a shrinking number of farmers bears the burden of feeding the global population, Keeton points out. "Even though the times have changed," he says, "the values of farmers haven't. It takes a special person to work the land." To celebrate those special people, the N.C. Department of Agriculture launched the North Carolina Mountain State Fair in 1994 at the WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher. The maiden event attracted 45,000 visitors. Last year, attendance grew to 130,000. This year, Mountain State Fair Manager Bill Edmondson expects a crowd of more than 140,000.
Part of the credit for that growth goes to the high-profile list of performers who enliven the fair each year. This season, fairgoers can enjoy a concert in the Morris L. "Mac" McGough Arena each evening at 7:30 p.m. The Platters will launch the 10-day celebration on opening night (Friday, Sept. 10), performing hits like "Earth Angel" and "Only You." On Sept. 11, you can sing along with The Bellamy Brothers -- whose popular songs include "Redneck Girl" and "Let Your Love Flow." The Issacs share soulful strains of gospel on Sept. 12.
Country-music sister duo The Kinleys -- known for hits like "Please" and "Just Between You and Me" -- will take the stage on Monday, Sept. 13. The utlra-high-energy Gene Watson will bring his traditional honky-tonk style to the fairgrounds on Sept. 14. Wade Hayes will entertain fairgoers on Sept. 15 with his blend of modern and traditional country, as in such hits as "Old Enough To Know Better" and "Don't Stop." Highway 101 performs their most beloved songs ("The Bed You Made For Me" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" -- for starters) on Sept. 16.
Billy Joe Royal leads fairgoers into the weekend on Friday, Sept. 17 with his signature pop and country standards, laced with a little R&B for good measure. The veteran, still-going-strong Marshall Tucker Band will rock the crowd on Sept. 18 with their best-known gems, including "Can't You See" and "Fire on the Mountain." And last but not least, country fave Ty Herndon takes the stage Sept. 19.
Before and after the music, though, don't forget to explore the many educational exhibits, livestock competitions and agricultural displays. New to the fair this year is the "Moo-ternity Ward," which offers fairgoers a chance to watch the birth of a calf. Other Mountain State Fair events range from pigracing to clogging competitions.
And yes, you can still enjoy that corn dog, get sticky fingers from cotton candy, and take a dizzying spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl (and other, far more frightening contraptions). Just keep in mind who's responsible for all that fun: North Carolina farmers.
Mountain State Fair basics
The North Carolina Mountain State Fair runs Sept. 10-19 at the WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher. Hours are 9 a.m.-midnight., Friday and Saturday, and 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Tickets are $4 for adults and $2 for children 6-12 (seniors 65 and over and children 5 and under get in free). Concerts are free with paid admission to the fair. For a list of daily events, check out the NCDA/CS Web site (www.nc.us/markets/fairs/mtnfair/). Call 687-1414 for more info.