A Century of Chattooga County Fairs

From its earliest days as an organized county, the citizens of Chattooga have been able to find many enjoyable activities to occupy their limited leisure time. Like the Cherokees before them, they often had activities that centered around the harvest season in the fall. Barn-raisings, quilting bees, corn-shuckings, candy-pulls, cakewalks, and the occasional dance all played their parts in entertaining our pioneer ancestors. Sometimes these were neighborhood events; sometimes they were centered around particular churches (revivals and camp meetings) or schools (picnics and carnivals).

A picture survives from the 1905 Fair at Commerce and Washington Streets in Summerville. A copy will be added to the photo section of this website. Your editors have tried diligently and in vain to find an original copy of this picture as it might be the best likeness remaining of the original brick courthouse, constructed under the direction of James Franklin Hitchcock, ca. 1841. In his 1849 book chronicling the counties of Georgia, Rev. George White makes specific reference to Hitchcock’s handsome brick courthouse. The Arrington (later Jackson) building in the background illustrates that the brick Georgian Style structure was much smaller than the current Neo-Classical Revival Style courthouse built in 1909.

It was not until 1904 that any great effort to create a county-wide after- harvest exhibition was put forward. On November 15, 1904 “an exhibit of Chattooga County products and livestock” was held at the intersection of Commerce and Washington Streets, near the old brick 1840’s courthouse. Of interest to this writer, the newspaper accounts of the time are quite resolute in NOT calling the 1904 “exhibit” a fair. There are several mentions of the exhibit being the pre-cursor to the “first county fair planned for 1905.” It seems the rationale for the distinction may be lost in the sands of time but it is obvious the organizers saw the 1904 event as an experiment. Since the 1905 affair was a mirror image of that of 1904, we can safely say 1904 marked the beginning of the Chattooga County Fair.

As the fair was revived last year, 110 years after its initial launch and after a hiatus of three and a half decades, we thought our readers might like to look back on the evolution of the fair down through the years. Some of the categories for prizes at the 2015 fair are quite similar to those of 1904 and some are quite different.

In 1904, there were prizes for the largest number of people hauled by a two-horse or mule-team wagon. Today, we would likely view that as, at best, inconsiderate of the poor mules and horses! There were prizes for bicycle races (though there were not that many bicycles in the county), foot races, best horses and mules—segmented by ages, best handmade clothing in various categories, best quilt, and best hand-made pillow shams. The gardeners and cooks of the county were not left out, for there were prizes for the biggest Irish potato, best fruit or preserves, fanciest pound of butter. Some oddities among the list of prizes—“finest” baby eighteen months or younger, biggest rattlesnake “dead or alive”, largest family in attendance, and greatest number of children under ten in one family.

As the years rolled by, fair week became the top attraction in the county, and was anticipated with excitement through the year. According to Robert S. Baker’s excellent history of the county, Col. Wesley Shropshire (grandson of pioneer settler Wesley Shropshire—who is remembered as having the foresight to vote against secession in the General Assembly) always led the fair parade as grand marshal. The exhibits were displayed inside the brick courthouse and on the lawn around it. The exhibitions of livestock and athletic prowess took place on Commerce and Washington Streets.

Already in 1905 there was talk about moving the fair to a permanent fairground, but this would not transpire for many years. Advertisements for the 1905 fair stated repeatedly “everything will be absolutely free” and encouraged all citizens to turn out—and to enter their own goods in the competition. In this and other early years, a prize was given for the oldest Confederate veteran in attendance.

In its first years, each day of the fair was commenced at 9:30 a.m. with a special address by some distinguished personage of the area. In 1906, Judge J.M. Bellah spoke on the first day. Judge Bellah’s home still stands in Summerville and is the home of the Robert McWhorter family. The second day’s speaker was Judge Moses Wright of Rome. Judge Wright lived in the Glenwood area north of Rome and was the brother-in-law of Martha Berry, founder of the Berry Schools.

In a retrospective of early fair years, the Summerville News mentioned that the “ugliest” man in attendance in 1906 was to receive a dozen bottles of Thacker’s Blood Syrup. Apparently the name was actually Dr. Thacher’s (sic) Liver and Blood Syrup. The product was bottled by the medicine company Dr. Henry Savage Thacher (1826-1898) founded in Chattanooga. The stuff was supposed to cure just about every ailment you can imagine. It was 12% alcohol and the American Medical Association disputed most of its medicinal efficacy claims outright. Still, no record of any deaths because of the Blood Syrup seem to have been reported although the Thacher company was not so lucky with their “Worm Syrup” as it killed two young children in 1910. Poor tykes—and poor ugliest man at the 1906 Chattooga County Fair!

The editors of the News in 1906 saw fit to give extra publicity to the overall exhibit of farm products presented by W.H. Penn, although it noted that Mr. Penn had been hard-pressed to come out ahead of Mr. Sim Smith, another industrious farmer.

Examinations of the Summerville News in ensuing years reveals list upon list of various winners in the many fair competitions. Most readers whose families resided in the county during the early years of the 20th century will find some “kinfolk” listed among the winners.

The “Corn Club” began in the county in 1910. This organization eventually evolved into the 4-H Club. From that time right up to the 2014 fair, 4-Hers have played a key role in the success of the event.

The fair began as a one-day affair but rapidly progressed to a three day event. Eventually, from 1915 and for a few years afterwards, Thursdays and Fridays were set aside for white patrons and Saturdays were set aside for African American Chattoogans. While it shocks our sensibilities today to think of all the inequities of segregation, it was a pleasant surprise for this writer to find that the merchants of Summerville provided the same caliber of prizes for both the black and the white citizens. The segregated set-up did not make a great deal of sense to anybody so after a few years everybody started coming on whatever day he or she wished, regardless of the hue of their skin.

The News devoted many column inches of type to the fair in 1915. Judge Wright was back to kick off the fair on Thursday with a rousing address and, appropriately, the day was designated “Rome Day” to lure citizens from the nearby county of Floyd. The Honorable Gordon Lee was the opening speaker on Friday, designated as “Chattanooga Day” which illustrates the savviness of the fair’s planners.

The 1915 fair was even more highly organized than in previous years. There were 20 committees, each with a chair and an organizing committee of volunteers. The schools were a focus for the fair in 1915. Longtime Historical Society members will remember the article written for us years ago by Mrs. Avva Wheeler Wells. Miss Avva recalled winning a competition at the fair that year with her “Product Map of Georgia”. She apparently so impressed former governor John M. Slaton, who visited the fair that year, that he asked to be able to take the map back to Atlanta where it was on display for several years at the Capitol Museum. 1915 saw an increase in the competition among foodstuff entries. The previous year had seen a collapse in the cotton market so farmers had focused more on subsistence crops.

The writer cannot leave 1915 without noting the winners of the 1915 “Best Baby” competition. The boy winner was Clifton Lafayette Shamblin (1914-1993), son of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Shamblin. The baby girl winner was little Maxine Phillips (1915-1988), five-month-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Willis Phillips. The daughter of Maxine Phillips Patterson is our own Elaine Patterson Miller, the current Corresponding Secretary for the Chattooga County Historical Society.

1923 saw a public meeting to try to build enthusiasm for the fair. The following quote helps us to understand the stress on county farmers of the time, “In has been shown conclusively that we can have a good fair despite the boll weevil and bad crop conditions.” Organizers asked for ideas from citizens for improving the fair and making it the greatest one to date.

Throughout its early years, refreshments of all varieties could be purchased at various booths set up at the fair site. Many of these were associated with the various schools of the county, who used the fair as their great moneymaking activity during the year.

In 1934 the fair moved from the town’s two main streets to Sturdivant Field at Summerville High School. Mr. E.W. Sturdivant had provided funding for a new gymnasium for the school (a building remembered well by the over-50 set in Summerville). The contiguous football field also bore Mr. Sturdivant’s name. Outdoor exhibits were on the field and the indoor exhibits were in the gym. For the first time a modest admission of five or ten cents was charged.

In 1934, Cumberland Valley Shows premiered the first set of “midway” attractions for the fair. Heretofore, the “midway” had consisted primarily of the “Flying Jenny” owned and operated by Mr. William Henry Gilreath. At a nickel-a-ride, Mr. Gilreath cleaned up! The October 18th, 1934 issue of the Summerville News tells us of Cumberland Valley Shows: “About 150 people are connected with the shows, which comprise many entertaining tented attractions and novel riding devices. Among the riding devices will be the merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and kiddy merry-go-round. Among the other attractions will be minstrel shows, doll racks, bingo games and many others.” As a 1960s and 70s devotee of the Chattooga County Fair, this writer wonders how they got along without the “Bullet” rollercoaster and the “Tilt-a-Whirl”.

The fair was a needed diversion for the county’s citizens during the Great Depression. Most of the county’s population survived the depression because, as one old-timer stated, “When you don’t have anything to start with, you don’t have much to miss in hard times.”

Wartime was a time of tension and heartache throughout the history of the county. This was especially true during World War II. Nonetheless, the fair continued. A discussion of the fair was convened at a meeting in mid-September of 1942, where it was made clear that the U.S. War Production Association wanted county fairs across the country to go forward. The theme was how good farming and cooperation of citizens could help to bring about a full victory and return to peace. While there were doubters present, by the end of the meeting, it was agreed by all that the fair could be a success. It was decided that war bonds and stamps would be given as the prizes, lending a decided air of patriotism to the whole business.

At last, in 1947, the county acquired land for a permanent fairground, adjoining Eighth Street in Summerville. For many years thereafter, through the 1960s, the fair continued to thrive. The new location provided dedicated exhibit buildings, an adequate space for parking and a great deal more room for the midway. I was born in Summerville in 1961 and I do not remember ever missing the fair.

From their formations until the late 1970s, each fair brought spirited competition among the members of the Chattooga Garden Club and the Cherokee Rose Garden Club. These ladies not only entered beautiful plants and arrangements, but were proficient in the National Garden Club handbook standards. Articles in the papers of Summerville, Trion, Rome and Chattanooga attest to the excellent shows of the past. These two clubs eventually combined forces as the Chattooga Garden Club, still an active and engaged organization in 2014.

Sadly, in the late 1970s, many circumstances combined to bring about a temporary end to the Chattooga County Fair. Better highways to Rome and Chattanooga made family outings much easier. There were fewer small farmers in Chattooga County and fewer women who had time to needlepoint, cross-stitch and embroider themselves into a blue ribbon, not to mention canning all those fruits and vegetables. These arts had not ceased in Chattooga County—and likely never will—but the zeal for the competition had waned. From the perspective of children and teenagers, the fair lost a bit of its luster when one compared its midway to the attractions at Six Flags Over Georgia, Opryland USA, and Silver Dollar City (later Dollywood). Today, the Fairway Recreation Center, located on part of the site, is all that reminds us of the 30+ years of Fair Celebrations near the Chattooga County Hospital.

So, the late 1970s were the last years of the Chattooga County fair as we knew it—or at least that was the thinking at the time. Happily, we were mistaken. The Chattooga County Historical Society is grateful to all who worked to bring about the return of the Fair in 2014. It is a fine example of community cooperation. Our thanks go to the Fair Committee, Chattooga County Schools, the Extension Service and the 4-H Club. Do not miss the exhibit of wonderful old photos the Historical Society will have on exhibit at the 2015 Fair! We’ll see you there!