PHILADELPHIA — In an urban location, the houses would be candidates for condemnation. Typically they may be no more than 16 feet wide and no more than 1,000 square feet in area, and all are at least two stories high. They are literally jammed together on zero lot lines and some of the construction materials resemble campfire kindling.
But for a week every July, those “cabins” at the Neshoba County Fair are a beehive of activity. Since the founding of the Fair in 1889, proud owners have reunited annually with family and friends and participated together in joyful and frenetic activities.
And according to reliable sources, those houses have become very valuable, particularly in recent years.
The buyer is unnamed, but it’s widely confirmed that one of the homes recently sold for $125,000. The house on the lot was leveled, and a new one constructed which included a stainless steel wine cooler and a Viking brand equipped kitchen. That’s wowed everyone, especially ol’ timers.
Steve Webb, CEO of The Citizens Bank (and current president of the Mississippi Bankers Association), likes to tell of buying a Fair cabin next door to his about 10 years ago. He decided it was one too many, and sold it three years later — and doubled his money. And then, he ruefully observed, that had he held on to it until now, he could have doubled his money again.
Then there’s Steve Wilkerson, owner of Steve’s on the Square, an upscale men’s store in Philadelphia. He got a call in 1984 from a Fair homeowner friend who wanted to sell his cabin.
Wilkerson remembered the phone conversation well. “He said somebody told him to ask $12,000 for it, but he and his wife would like to sell it to somebody they know, so he’d take $10,000. I told him ‘Consider it sold. Now would you take me out there and let me look at it?’”
Then he told about the guy he thought was crazy “not many years ago” that paid $25,000 for one of the places.
The $125,000 sale was for a cabin on Founders Square, which surrounds the tin-roofed pavilion where the rearing, snorting political speaking takes place. The general consensus is that “The Square” is a premium location.
As Robert Germany, who just rebuilt his family’s home, put it, “This is where everything happens,” referring not only to the political activity, but the band concerts, community singing, cakewalks and numerous other activities.
Aside from The Square, there are names given to various other neighborhoods. There’s Beverly Hills, Sunset Strip, Happy Hollow, Canal Street, Bourbon Street and Pleasant Hill. Steve Wilkerson’s place is in Happy Hollow and he puts it this way: “Everyone thinks that no matter where their cabin is, it’s the best. It’s never cool at the Fair, but mine’s on a hill and we get some breeze and that’s always welcome.”
Others cite the lack of privacy and constant turmoil as objections to a Square location. Steve Webb said that regardless of where a cabin is located, $50,000 is a minimum asking price.
One of the reasons for the surge in prices is the law of inelastic supply and increasing demand — the 150 acres can only hold 601 houses, and devotees of the Fair increase every year, despite sweltering heat and occasional torrential downpours. Another bother is that the Neshoba County Fair Association owns the land, so there can’t be the customary deed of trust.
That doesn’t phase banker Webb.
“It’s really kind of ridiculous, but with the increase in values, a Fair home is about as good a collateral as you can get nowadays,” he said. “There’s no signed lease, so owners have to make sure to get a copy of the (Fair Association) board minutes that approves and recognizes their house ownership.”
Cabin owners are then subject to the Fair Association’s house and ground rules. These include approval by the association board of any replacement house plans or exterior changes to an existing house. There are also rules about loud noises. Disobeying the rules can bring on probation, padlocking and forced selling or removal of the cabin.
Easy-going Doug Johnson has been manager of the Fair for eight years.
He said, “We haven’t had to do any of that kind of stuff during my tenure, but it has been done in the past. These homeowners are our customers and we try to make sure they have a good time.” Johnson claims his gray hair is the result of previously teaching driver’s ed, but maybe he’s heard too many divorce stories.
That’s because, in Neshoba County, the natives say, when there’s a divorce, the fight isn’t over who gets the kids — it’s about who gets the Fair cabin.
Stanley Dearman is the former owner and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat.
“It can be acrimonious and tragically humorous,” Dearman said. “There was one cabin where they got joint custody (of the cabin) and they partitioned it off. It was like the Berlin Wall so that even out on the porch they couldn’t see each other.”
And there are some other love-hate aspects about the cabins, especially for the women. The duties become almost overwhelming for the women in charge of the cabin before and during Fair Week. The cooking for the horde of people that descend on the family headquarters will include not only family, but invited friends, business acquaintances and others. One lady in charge was informed this year there would be fewer people to feed — only 400, not the customary 500.
So it’s easy to understand why one female observer — who chose to remain anonymous — said, “The time to buy a cabin is the week after the Fair, and make sure the seller’s wife is in the negotiations. If she had her way, she’d give it to you.”
Leave it to Steve Wilkerson to give the final advice about fair cabins: “Unless you need the money, don’t sell it.”
— MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr.