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The never changing Neshoba County Fair… and the changes

As any Neshoba County Fair fan will tell you, some things about the Fair never change. Two certainties are sweltering heat and a lot of political “hot air,” especially during a statewide election year like 2007. There are so many anxious candidates this year that the political speaking will start Tuesday, July 24, instead of the traditional Wednesday.

Another certainty is that Wednesday will be set aside as “Meridian Day.” That’s been true since 1951 — as far back as always-busy Doug Johnson, the fair manager, can find records. The East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (EMBDC, formerly the Meridian Chamber of Commerce) is planning another crowd-pleasing program this year featuring the Jimmie Rodgers Festival talent winners plus Track 45, a blue grass hit group. And at least 50 door prizes estimated to be worth $50 each will be awarded—plus a grand prize.

So Wednesday is locked in — and has been for fifty-six years. It’s one of those never-changing factors. EMBDC president Wade Jones said it’s part of the organization’s regional concept effort in economic development. “The Fair is an ideal the place for us to build relationships with area business leaders and governmental officials,” Jones said. “And that’s essential in our plan.”

Thursday program’s
ping pong history

But Thursday has been changing. For 42 years, Johnson reports that Thursday was “Jackson Day” dedicated to the Capital City. That started in 1951, too, an election year when Fair attendance booms. But in 1993, Thursday changed when Jackson was replaced by “Hattiesburg Day.” The Hub City held on for 11 years (1993-2004), and then, guess who? The Fair’s county seat of Philadelphia took over Thursday with their “Hometown Proud” program, and, according to chairperson Laura Thrash, “It’s great fun and we want Thursday from now on.”

Paul Latture was president of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce in 1993 when it declined to carry on the Jackson Day tradition. Latture is now executive director of the Little Rock Arkansas Port Authority and agreed with Lewis Slater, the Jackson Chamber’s current senior vice president’s, reasoning. “Jackson Day fell victim to our analysis of the life cycle of chamber projects,” Slater said. “We pick up new projects and are forced to either spin off or drop others due to lack of resources and staff time.”

So it was that in 1993, Thursday became “Hattiesburg Day.” David Rumbarger was president of the Area Development Partnership. “We jumped at the chance,” Rumbarger said. “Hattiesburg was booming — we had expanded our industrial park, had made several industry announcements, our medical facilities were expanding and our convention center was under construction. It was great publicity for our area.” Rumbarger has since moved on to be president of Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation.

Gray Swoope, now executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, followed Rumbarger in Hattiesburg. “When I took office, one of our vice-presidents told me to organize Hattiesburg Day, and I did it,” Swoope recalls. “It was a golden opportunity to let people know what was going on in our area and to share our enthusiasm. We felt it met our objective.”

When Swoope left in 2004, Hattiesburg Day seemed to fall through the cracks and, like Jackson, probably lost out to other priorities. Distance from the Fair — 120 miles compared to Jackson’s 80 miles and Meridian’s 40 miles — could certainly have been a contributing factor.

One year and out, but
taking over Thursday

To complicate things, in 1999 the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau (TC&VB) asked to come down on Tuesday for a “Tupelo Day.” “It lasted only a year,” said Linda Elliff, director of sales for TC&VB. “It created a lot of good will, but we were uncertain about any increase in visitors.” So in 2000, Philadelphia picked up Tuesday for its day. Then in 2004, it was easy for it to move to Thursday.

Laura Thrash gets almost ecstatic in describing their plans for this year’s July 26 program. She represents the sponsoring organization, the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Tourism Bureau, and is a member of the Cole family that’s been associated with the Fair almost since its inception in 1889.

“We’ll open with a fun skit titled ‘Chitterling Cook Off,’” Thrash said with a chuckle. “Then there will be some great music and audience participation. There’ll be a scavenger hunt for the kids and prizes awarded at the end of the program. And we’re giving away cups of LuVel ice cream — boy, are they ever welcome — bottled water and lots of door prizes.”

Thrash is certain that the home area benefits from all the hoopla. “Many of the cabins are owned by people from outside Mississippi,” she said. “So it attracts attention from a wide area. We hope we can entice people to come back, shop in our stores, and spend some time here and at the Pearl River Resort. The response has really been great in the past.”

One of the program attractions carried over from Jackson Day will be the ever-popular Hinds High Steppers from Hinds Community College. “Oh, gosh yeah,” Thrash said. “We invited them and are delighted that they accepted.”

Remedies for hot soup on hot day

As for Meridian Day, Dorothy Allen is manager of the chamber of commerce division of the EMBDC and expects approximately 150 volunteers — each will be wearing a Meridian Day tee shirt — to carry out its program. “A lot of Meridian people own cabins up there, and they swell with pride when we come up and celebrate,” she said. “Then it gives our businesses an opportunity to cultivate customers. People like to do business with people they know.”

One of the Meridian Day giveaways will be cups of hot navy bean soup provided by Meridian Naval Air Station personnel. “It’s very popular,” Allen said. “Believe it or not, they run out every year.” Perhaps she sees the irony in commenting further. “And our hospitals pass out cold lemonade and bottled water, too.”

So Meridian has established another tradition at the Fair — 56 years of Wednesday being Meridian Day — and, now after some swapping, Thursday has settled into being Philadelphia Day. It’s going to be that way for a long time.

As for the searing heat, Tupelo’s Linda Elliff has this to say about its brief participation. “The main thing I remember is it was extremely hot.” As any grizzled Fair veteran will tell you, that’s a certainty.


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