We were packed in close together, lawn chairs in hand, waiting for the announcer to finish his “Thank You’s” and for the track to be cleared. The game plan was to get as many of our chairs placed together, preferably centered to the stage, and as quickly as possible. We were too far in the back of the crowd to hope for the first few rows but where the track sloped upward was just right, giving a slight stadium-seating effect. The trophy presented, the horse who had just won the last race of the 2016 Neshoba County Fair finally leaves the track and the security guard throws open the gate. The cacophony of hundreds of people storming the red dirt track and flinging lawn chairs into position temporarily fills the dusty air. I had just successfully survived my first chair race! All that was left was to wait for the evening’s concert.
Racing, whether horse or chair races, are as much tradition as the agriculture and livestock show. In 1889 local farmers arranged a picnic to showcase produce, livestock and women’s artisanship. After the first 2 picnics were well received, committees were formed and the “Stock and Agricultural Fair” was formed. Three years later, in 1894, the first races were held. In 1914 the first licensed racetrack in Mississippi was built at the fair grounds. Since then the grandstand has hosted politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Michael Dukakis, and Country Music stars like George Strait and Trace Adkins.
But what really sets the fair apart from every other fair throughout the country are the cabins, and of course those who move into them for the duration of the fair. As the fair grew larger than a 2 day event, farmers began camping overnight instead of riding home at the end of each day. Eventually crude structures began replacing tents and covered wagons, and the house party mentality took hold. Today there are 600 cabins exclusively owned and decorated by individuals and families located on the fair grounds. Not to mention 500 RV spaces. Most cabins are 3 stories tall and can roughly sleep 40 people, making the fair the perfect place to reconnect and spend quality time with family and friends. Even though the fair takes place in the last (and quite possibly the hottest and muggiest) week in July, families gladly uproot their lives, throw open the cabin doors, gorge on fried fair food, shop the Saturday flea market and art show, cheer on their favorite horses, race for the best seats, and stay up late into the night playing cards with family.
You can say the produce and livestock judging is the same as any other county fair and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. You can say the rides are the same as any other fair and you wouldn’t be wrong. You can say the car show, the rodeo, the arts and crafts, and the live music is the same as every other fair and you still wouldn’t really be wrong. But all of that, plus the red dirt and shade trees, plus the bright lights strung among the porches, plus the camaraderie of front porch gossiping all create a unique atmosphere that just has to be experienced. It’s nostalgic and it’s tradition.
So whether it’s sipping sweet tea, attending political rallies, napping on the front porch, or jockeying for position before the chair race Mississippi’s Giant House Party is a sweet southern spectacle worth experiencing.