PHILADELPHIA — The Neshoba County Fair is widely known for two groups of people: those who hate it and those who love it. Those who hate it included Joe Williams, a former commander of the Meridian Naval Air Station who had traveled world-wide. He went to his reward swearing that the Neshoba County Fair was the only place he’d ever been where he was up to his knees in mud and red dust was blowing in his face.
Then there are those who love “the Fair” like Dan Turner, a veteran Florida newsman and Neshoba County native. The day he leaves the Fair after his week’s stay, he starts marking off the days until next year’s event.
Truth of the matter is there are not many people in between those who hate it and those who love it. The latter group absolutely will not miss “Mississippi’s Giant House Party.” The fellowship with family and longtime friends, the home-cooked food, the full-bore politicking and the step back into a bygone era are well worth enduring the blasting heat, dust and occasional torrential thunderstorms that provoked Joe Williams’ wrath.
Among the Fair’s charms are that the fairgrounds are stuck off in the middle of nowhere about eight miles southwest of Philadelphia, the county seat (population 8,000). The uninitiated are always startled when, in the middle of thousands of acres of pine trees and red clay hills, they suddenly come upon the beehive of activity generated by the 30,000 annual attendees. And when presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan and Michael Dukakis show up, the numbers increase dramatically.
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All of that overlooks the sizable economic impact of the week-long event that kicks off July 21. Kenneth Breland is president of Breland Building Supply in Philadelphia, and also president of the 20-member volunteer board of directors that handles the myriad of details and headaches that go with the event. The Fair had receipts last year that exceeded a million dollars for the first time in its 111-year history.
“That’s pretty big economic development,” Breland said. “We’re told that money turns over seven times. The labor alone runs about $300,000.” At its peak, the Fair employs more than 100 people, but only two are full time, Doug Johnson, the fair manager, and Junior Johnson, the caretaker (no relation).
The 601 cabins and the 350 camper-trailers, where people live during the fair week, are on land owned by the Fair association. And if you’re interested in a space, forget it — there’s none left. The trailers are moved after the event, but the two- and three-story cabins are permanent, although Breland said nine were completely replaced this year at cost of $60,000-$70,000 each.
Asked how much of a hand Breland Building Supply had in that approximate $600,000 expenditure, Breland simply said, “They’re good customers, and all of them have to have repairs.”
Family ownership of a cabin can become contentious, Breland said. “In most counties, fights over a divorce are about child custody or possession of a business, but in Neshoba County, it’s about who’s going to get the Fair cabin.”
Breland has been told that a cabin in “Happy Hollow,” one of the Fair locales, recently sold for $85,000, and cabins around “The Square” where the pavilion is — and where most of the politicking, and some of the entertainment, goes on — demand a higher premium.
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Cabin owners are charged $150 per year for electricity and an additional $40 per floor for each air conditioner. That fee includes garbage pickup, and as Breland said, “Even the garbage sacks.”
Despite cutting off the main switch from Aug. 15 to April 15, the Fair’s power bill will be about $150,000 annually.
Then there are the groceries to feed that hungry throng. Sid Williams is a member of the family that owns the regionally famous Williams Store in Williamsville on Philadelphia’s outskirts (he’s also famous as Archie Manning’s brother-in-law and Peyton Manning’s uncle). Sid said that he normally sells 6,000 pounds of custom sliced bacon a week, but during “Fair week”, that jumps to 8,000 pounds.
“Every cabin out there’s got to be stocked for groceries, so it helps us starting about two weeks before the Fair,” Williams said. “Then the week of the Fair, they’ve got to eat, so that helps us a lot. And it’s probably one of the better weeks we have in dry goods because a bunch of out-of-town people come in and say, ‘This is our yearly trip to the Fair and to buy clothes.’” And he credits the rodeo on the first weekend with generating a big increase in sales of boots and other western wear.
When asked his version of the Fair’s impact, Steve Wilkerson, owner of Steve’s on the Square, a men’s store, quickly responds, “That week always makes July our second biggest month of the year.” So Fair-goers obviously do some of their shopping downtown, too.
There were fears of a drop in attendance when the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians cranked up their Silver Star Casino & Hotel complex, but Breland said, “We’ve joined hands and they’ve helped us. They run a shuttle bus from the hotel every 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. everyday.”
Among the benefits of the $10 ticket price to attend for a day, or $20 for the “season,” is admission to all of the entertainment, events and exhibits — and yes, tickets are required for the cabin and trailer owners as well as Breland and his volunteer board of directors. He figures he’ll be full time at the Fair during the three weeks beforehand, during Fair week and the week after.
“Ain’t nothing like it in the world,” Breland said. “Some people want us to pave the streets, but we’re trying to keep it like it’s supposed to be.”
And he won’t be surprised if some of those attending find themselves up to their knees in mud and red dust blowing in their face. Sometimes that’s the best part of the Neshoba County Fair experience.
The 2000 Neshoba County Fair will be held July 21-29. For additional information, visit the Fair Web site www.neshobacountyfair.org.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Wilton J. “Bill” Johnson Jr. at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.