NESHOBA COUNTY — In its 128-year history, the Neshoba County Fair has amassed many nicknames, the most lasting of which has been “Mississippi’s Giant House Party.” To most, however, it’s simply “The Fair.”

Randale Pope drinks his morning coffee at the Ladd’s Landing cabin at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia. Photo by James Edward Bates.

The Fair has something for just about anyone — from sports and outdoor activities to music, art and politics. Even if for only a day, visitors can leave with a strong taste of Mississippi history and tradition — and they can wash it down with ice-cold lemonade.

Founded in 1889, The Fair has been an epicenter of some of the most notable moments in state political, cultural and agricultural history, despite its beginnings as a campground fair. At its core, it remains just that — a community of families who love spending time with each other so much that they shuck most everyday comforts for a week in multi-story cabins, with tens of people sharing one bathroom, sleeping in bunk beds and fighting to be near window air conditioners.

It’s rustic, but The Fair has come a long way since its early days. The cabins evolved from simple one-story structures to larger, more comfortable and colorful vacation homes. As new cabins were built, The Fair community expanded into neighborhoods with such memorable names as “Happy Hollow,” “Sunset Strip,” “Pleasant Hills” and “Bourbon Street,” all with their own special personalities and traditions. At night, for example, Pleasant Hills illuminates with strings of white lights, turning the Weyerhauser sawdust that covers the red clay ground into a street of gold more magical than the towering Ferris wheel at the midway.

Elsewhere, residents of the cabins encircling the horseracing track get a bird’s eye view from their top-floor porches of horse races in the afternoons, often placing friendly bets on the harness and quarter horse races. At night, the Grandstand stage features concerts by such nationally renowned entertainers as Luke Bryan, Little Big Town and Trace Adkins.

Throughout The Fair, local agriculture plays a large role. The numerous livestock shows include the popular “Pretty Cow” contest, a farmers’ market and a rodeo. A spacious exhibit hall is open to the public all week, showcasing locally made arts, crafts and homegrown produce and canning, which are judged and given prizes.

Harness racing at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. Photo by James Edward Bates.

Jeannette Mars of Philadelphia remembers the days before The Fair grew into what it is today. Her late husband George’s parents, Henry and Gladys Mars, purchased their cabin in the Founders’ Square neighborhood for $100. The previous owner, hearing rumors that the outbreak of World War II would cause The Fair to be shuttered permanently, decided to liquidate. After the war, when The Fair reopened, the previous owner approached Mrs. Mars with $100 asking to buy back the cabin. Mrs. Mars, already recognizing the value of owning a cabin, declined the offer. Cabin 15 has belonged to the Mars family ever since.

Mars’ first time to visit the Fair was while she was dating her husband in 1968. Coming from an apartment in the urban state capitol city of Jackson, The Fair was quite a different experience.

“It was hot, dusty and muddy,” she said. “I usually didn’t like dirt or sweat. It was culture shock.”
She remembered the original cabins of those days being like “shacks.”

“The ceiling was 7 feet tall and open air,” she said. “There was no stove, and food had to be brought in from town every day.”

She still has the antique icebox from her family’s early days in the cabin.

Mars said she kept coming back because she was “intrigued,” and, of course, liked George. They married the following year, and Mars has not missed a Fair since.

“I’ve learned to relax out here,” she said. “I enjoy the time with my Fair family.’”

Now, Mars enjoys The Fair as an uninterrupted week to spend with her daughter and son-in-law, Grayson and Chad Miller of Vero Beach, Fla., and their four children, Lance, Caleb, Owen and Rosalie.

Miller has lived away, including in Indiana, but no matter where, she and her family have never missed The Fair.

“I can’t imagine missing it,” Miller said. “Even if I could only come out here for a day, I would drive all that way to come out here for just that one day.”
Miller also enjoys the chances to reconnect with old friends at The Fair.

“I don’t feel like I just have great friends out here. I feel like they’re part of my family, too,” Miller said. “I enjoy seeing them year after year.”

Miller’s children are developing a shared love of The Fair. On the drive up from Florida, 7-year-old Rosalie, asked, “Are we going to see our cousins this year?” She was referring to the Mars cabin neighbor children, with whom she plays every year.

Peyton Howell, left, and Kennedy Loper, both age 6, during the Neshoba County Fair. Photo by James Edward Bates.

“She already understands the concept of Fair family,” Miller said.

The Fair is a homecoming for many, as exhibited by the longstanding “Hometown Proud Day” program, a one-day event that celebrates the city of Philadelphia, as well as “Meridian Day,” which celebrates the nearby Queen City.

Lauren Pratt, a marketing specialist at Meridian Community College and a regular Fairgoer, enjoys being a part of Meridian Day.

“I love the fact that we get a chance to promote our city and our college to people all over the state and beyond,” she said. Knowing the sheer number of Neshoba County Fair attendees and the wide array of places from which they come, Pratt said, Meridian Day is a great opportunity to expand Meridian’s reach beyond the borders of Lauderdale County.

Pratt, too, loves the sense of community at The Fair.

“The Fair is like Mayberry to me — with everyone sitting on their porches talking, playing cards, watching their kids play with other kids,” she said.

Pratt loves that few televisions and computers are dragged to The Fair, allowing people to connect in more personal ways.

Cities such as Meridian aren’t the only ones getting a message across at The Fair. From their porch, Mars and Miller can listen to one of The Fair’s oldest oratory traditions — the political speeches on the stump at the historic Founders’ Square Pavilion. They are regularly scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday of Fair Week.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, center, shares a laugh with Commissioner of Revenue Herb Frierson, right, and State Auditor Stacey Pickering, left, at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Photo by James Edward Bates.

Governors of Mississippi and other state officials, especially those representing the Neshoba County area, as well as members of the state’s congressional delegation, regularly attend the Fair. In election years, the appearance is a key to their campaign, and the candidates arrive with volunteers and staff in tow who pass out fliers, T-shirts and other campaign memorabilia.

The Fair also is a bright spot on the national political map. President Ronald Reagan, along with wife, Nancy, spoke at The Fair as a part of his 1980 campaign, and just last year, The Fair was a stop for Donald Trump Jr., President Donald Trump’s eldest son, who spoke to a large crowd of fairgoers in support of his father’s bid for the presidency.

Longtime editorial cartoonist for The Clarion-Ledger Marshall Ramsey has witnessed a number of political appearances in his 20 years of covering the Neshoba County Fair.

“This is very unique. I’ve lived in a lot of different states, and you don’t see anything like (The Fair),” he said. Ramsey noted the “fiery” rhetoric has toned down over the past couple of decades, but The Fair still is a great way for people to connect with the people they elected.

“The politics are great. It’s like having a master class in Mississippi politics. You get to sit on porches and talk to people and catch up on the latest gossip,” he said.

Caroline Nicholson, 4, and her brother Christian, 18 months, dig into a freshly cut watermelon at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. Photo by James Edward Bates.

Outside of politics, one of Ramsey’s favorite reasons for visiting The Fair is the home-cooked food at his friends’ cabins, specifically the Southern standard dessert, banana pudding. One of the great traditions of The Fair is the food. From casseroles and cakes to pies and potatoes, one does not have to look far for hospitality and a great meal. Families pass down recipes for generations, many of which appear only at Fair time. Mars and Miller always enjoy a barbecue dinner with all the trimmings, and Pratt’s family hosts luncheons for friends and co-workers and a shrimp boil with homemade ice cream and strawberry cake for dessert.

“I’ve made so many friends out here in the 20 years I’ve been coming that it really is like a family reunion for me,” Ramsey said. “I don’t have any family with cabins out here, but now I feel like I do.”