The Neshoba County Fair is one of Mississippi’s most notable social, political, and cultural institutions. A true campground fair, the event has been held annually (except for an interruption during World War II) since 1891. Located eight miles southwest of the county seat, Philadelphia, the fair features political oratory, late-night gospel singing, popular musical acts, a triathlon, livestock and produce exhibitions, a midway with games and carnival food, a beauty contest, mule racing, and the only legal horseracing in the state. The fair’s patrons and admirers praise the sense of community and nostalgia that the event embodies. Indeed, the fair represents nothing so much as an annual weeklong family reunion for thousands of Neshoba County residents, their kin, and their friends.
The fairgrounds resemble a small Mississippi town, with neighborhoods such as Happy Hollow and Sunset Strip, streets, and even a post office, all fanning out from centrally located Founder’s Square. The most distinctive feature of the fair is the cabins, now numbering more than six hundred, in which thousands of people live for a week in late July each year. These magnificent specimens of vernacular architecture are decorated and feature such names as The Fox Den, Green Acres, and Ye Old King’s Kastle. Traditionally, these two- and three-story structures have been self-consciously spartan, in keeping with the fair’s early history as a camp meeting; some early cabins were log houses. Cabin owners have more recently installed air-conditioning and even Mississippi-manufactured Viking ranges. Almost all of the cabins feature broad front porches and balconies that allow for long afternoons and evenings of visiting with family and friends. Most cabins display some signs of life twenty-four hours a day. Upstairs, one typically finds row upon row of bunk beds. Most of the cabins are decorated with family names and even family trees; state, national, and Confederate flags; and banners declaring allegiance to one of the state’s universities. And while Neshoba is a dry county, alcohol is in plentiful if discreet supply in many cabins.
The Neshoba County Fair traces its origins to 1889 and to Patron’s Union meetings and other fairs in surrounding counties and communities. Fairgoers and their families initially traveled the red clay roads to the fair in ox-drawn wagons, camping at night in makeshift shelters. In 1891 nine men formed the Neshoba County Stock and Agricultural Fair Association. With an initial tract of 20 acres, the Fair Association began construction of a pavilion and later a hotel. Fairgoers soon began building the cabins that make the fairgrounds so distinctive. Early fairs featured the sorts of exhibitions of livestock, agricultural products, and handcrafts common at county fairs across the South. Incorporated under state law in 1933, the Neshoba County Fair, unlike other state and county fairs, was and remains a private, nonprofit corporation owned by local stockholders. The Fair Association still owns all 150 acres on which the cabins stand and must approve any sale, transfer, or significant alteration to any cabin.
For the past one hundred years the fair has played an important role in Mississippi politics. Governors since Anselm McLaurin (1896–1900) have spoken at the fair, as has practically every serious candidate for state and local office, including constable and supervisor. In recent decades the fair has even drawn the occasional presidential candidate, including such figures as Jack Kemp, Michael Dukakis, John Glenn, and Ronald Reagan. Would-be officeholders have long enjoyed the opportunity to woo the very large (by Mississippi standards) and politically savvy crowds. Unlike many state and county fairs, Neshoba’s is held in late July, not at harvest time. Mississippi’s primary elections are held in August, which gave candidates the chance to brave the heat and the dust (or mud) and reach voters before the election that mattered most when Mississippi was a one-party state. For most of the twentieth century the vast majority of dozens of candidates who spoke at the fair each year were Democrats, though Republican hopefuls are now in the majority and receive the warmest welcome, a change that reflects broader currents in Mississippi and southern politics.
As with almost any Mississippi institution, the fair carries its own history of race. In the 1950s and 1960s politicians speaking at the fair strove to outdo each other in claiming the power to defend the state’s “traditional way of life” from the menaces of the federal government and outside agitators. Ross Barnett became a fair favorite in the years after he served as governor. The old ways of speaking about race have disappeared from the fair, and Mississippi politicians today sometimes use the fair’s Neshoba County setting to point to the recent successful prosecutions of civil rights era killers as evidence of the state’s movement away from the old days.
The cabins, the food, and the political speaking all contribute to the unique sense of place and community that makes the Neshoba County Fair “Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty” for its patrons.
- Robert Craycroft, The Neshoba County Fair: Place and Paradox in Mississippi (1989)
- Steven H. Stubbs, Mississippi’s Giant Houseparty: The History of the Neshoba County Fair (2005)