A Fair Day All Around
By Jeff Salter
I’ve actually been to several fairs – on vastly different scales – including the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and a handful of Louisiana State Fairs, held each year in Shreveport. But the experiences which come to mind (when I think of a fair) go back to the late 50s through late 60s at the Parish Fair held each autumn in the St. Tammany Parish seat of Covington, LA. [I believe everybody knows this, but in Louisiana, the “counties” are called PARISHES.]
First of all, even though I was a kid, I was well aware of how dirty everything was. The tents and other temporary structures were set up in a field, on grass and dirt… which often became mud if there’d been any rain. None of the rides had apparently been cleaned since the crew had dismantled them at the previous parish seat and reassembled them here. In fact, judging by the visible grime, I’d say those rides were not cleaned but once a year, after fair season was completely over.
I don’t recall a primary “midway”, so I’m thinking it was more like several “streets” of games and sideshows in one large area and the big rides in another large area. There were permanent buildings and pavilions for displays and for the various crafts, foods, and animals to be evaluated and awarded prize ribbons.
At that time I had never heard the term “carny” [or “carnie”] – which I believe nowadays describes the regular employees who travel with the fairs from town to town – but I noticed most of the rough-edged people taking my money (for whatever reason — games, food, sideshows, or rides) looked like they’d seen better days… and a long time ago.
I mainly remember bumper cars which would not work well, tilt-a-whirls which made me dizzy, and antique ( ? wooden ? ) Ferris Wheels which seemed so rickety that each revolution could easily have been its last. For some reason I don’t recall go-karts… so I presume they became popular later or required too much upkeep to make them profitable. Sometimes there was a “fun-house” and there was always a separate collection of “kiddie rides” for little tykes.
It is the sideshows where I really learned important lessons of youth: primarily those of false advertising and deliberate misrepresentation. The gigantic, colorful posters would depict a two-headed baby sitting in a crib crying and shaking his rattle… but when you paid your quarter and went inside the tent, all you saw was a (long) dead baby’s carcass in a big jar of formaldehyde. It was similar at every sideshow tent — you knew full well that the actual contents would be nothing whatsoever like the splashy advertisement, but somehow you were compelled anyhow to pay your money and take your peek at the oddities of the world like sword-swallowers, bearded ladies, contortionists, etc.
All the games were rigged and everybody knew it. The basketball hoops were smaller than regulation size, you could never get a dime to land on a shallow and slippery plate, the darts had blunted points that would never puncture a thick balloon, and the hoops would never go completely over the square wooden bases of the bottles we were supposed to ring. The BB rifles (when they still had them) were deliberately mis-sighted and the water pistols had no pressure. That said, and fully understood, I could not resist the games. My favorite of all was the booth with mechanical cranes. That, too, was rigged, of course. The crane never stopped when and where you wanted it to, its “claws” were rounded and had no grip whatsoever, and the “good” toys were stuffed down into the bin so tightly it would take pliers to remove them. Yet I could not resist the challenge of the cranes. And, yes, I did “win” some pitiful little prizes [that I could have purchased for a fraction of what I spent on the cranes].
To be truthful, I don’t recall much about the food, except that I was never a big fan of hot dogs anyway and the ones at the fair looked (and smelled) particularly unappetizing. My favorite was the cotton candy… and I was able to ignore the fact that the appliance (on which it was made) was filthy, as were the hands of the carny who prepared and served it. But it tasted SOOOO GOOOD.
As I’ve sat here and typed up all these recollections, I’m sensing anyone reading this would think, “Everything sounds absolutely awful. Why did he ever go back?” The true answer may be more complex than this, but I think it’s fair to say that – in somewhat sleepy Covington during the period of late 50s through late 60s – there wasn’t much other entertainment besides the movie theater and the high school football / basketball games. So when the parish fair came to town, school let out early one afternoon, and everybody in town went to see what they could ride, eat, examine, or play. Because it would be a full year before the fair returned.
Did you ever visit a county / parish fair? How was it?
[JLS # 286]