Fairground memories: Rides, games, smells, ‘fried something-on-a-stick’

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s remembers that special week each fall when the local fairgrounds suddenly came to life, with neon lights blazing and a cacophony of noises — music blaring, kids screaming on the carnival rides, barkers trying to attract suckers to the games of chance, and prize cattle mooing mournfully.

At night, a big draw was the view for miles from the Ferris wheel, where many a first kiss was exchanged at the top (if not in the darkened Tunnel of Love).

Remember the Tilt-a-Whirl, Kamikaze and Toboggan? And, for younger kids, the bumper cars and merry-go-round?

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Credit: Johnny H. Kesler

Credit: Johnny H. Kesler

And, who could resist the midway, with the funhouse’s distorted mirrors and the haunted house’s hokey skeletons, fake cobwebs and occasional jump scare?

My brothers and I always looked forward to late October, when the Athens Agricultural Fair had a weeklong run at the grounds that now are a county park. Sometimes, we went with friends, usually on a weekday after school, but we also went with my banker father, who was a member of the Evening Optimist Club, which ran one of the food concession stands as a fundraiser.

Ask about memories of the fair and the one thing most people mention is that intoxicating smell, as the scents of popping corn, cooking caramel, frying meat, pastries, wet straw and diesel fuel mixed with an occasional whiff of livestock on display.

It seemed the weather always turned cool right about time for the fair. “I always looked forward to the sights, sounds and smells provided at the fairgrounds on a cool, crisp evening,” recalled Helen Barrett Penter. “The smell made it seem like a special place.”

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Credit: Courtesy of Sweet Cotton

Credit: Courtesy of Sweet Cotton

Betz Tillitski remembers that “as your parents’ car got closer, you would get that first glimpse of the brightly lit Ferris wheel. We were entering a different world. I was so excited to get inside the fair and start exploring. The bright lights, loud and corny music and so many things to smell gave me information overload, but I loved every minute of it. … Everything looked and felt exotic.”

“The fair was something you looked forward to every year,” said Blake Giles. “As an adult now, you notice how run-down some of the modern carnivals are, but, as a kid, it was all magical.”

And, of course, another attraction was the carnival food, which Dan Pelletier summed up as “corn dogs, popcorn and fried something-on-a-stick.”

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

For many kids, a chance to gorge junk food your mom never would make was a big attraction, but not for Tom Hodgson. “Everything was either too big or too sweet or too sticky,” he said.

Nowadays, it seems that any food you can think of can be found deep-fried at a carnival, ranging from pickles to peanuts to Oreos to ice cream to s’mores to Mars bars to mac and cheese bites to cookie dough. Plus, of course, there are various things dipped in chocolate, from bacon to bananas, and — the peak of carnival cuisine — the funnel cake.

But, back when I was attending the fair, funnel cakes hadn’t yet shown up. The most exotic thing we encountered at the fair was cotton candy. Christeen McClary Mix remembers eating it every year, “not so much the taste, but the fun of watching them spin it onto the cone.” (I wasn’t a fan — it made your hands and face all sticky.)

And, then there were the caramel apples (I’d eat the caramel and then toss the rest of the apple), caramel-covered popcorn, neon-colored snow cones and fried pies.

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Plus, of course, the burgers, hot dogs and fries peddled by my dad and the other Optimists at their stand. Fortunately, I was among the club members’ older children who were allowed to work behind the counter there, which was a bigger thrill than it might sound, because, while we didn’t get paid, we could eat for free!

There’s just something about a burger or hot dog, fries and Coke at an outdoor event that seems special — especially when you don’t have to pay for them.

Still, with Dad or one of his friends watching, those of us from the younger generation working the counter generally restrained ourselves from overdoing it.

Credit: Courtesy of Skerbeck Family Carnival

Credit: Courtesy of Skerbeck Family Carnival

I almost always worked the booth on Saturday night, the last night of the fair, and I remember how we’d slash prices — and even give stuff away for free — as the closing hour approached. One year, there were leftover frozen burgers that we took home and enjoyed all winter.

It wasn’t all work, though. We could take extended breaks and wander around. I mostly steered clear of the sideshows, where a mix of fake and real “human oddities” — ranging from the “bearded” lady to the “gorilla girl” — were displayed.

The carnies weren’t too careful about checking ages at the so-called “adult” shows, either, so you could have a 16-year-old girl (one of my classmates) running traumatized from the tent after the “Half-Man, Half-Woman” lifted their dress and was revealed as intersex, or a 13-year-old boy finding out what was concealed behind the pasties and G-strings of the strippers in the “hoochie coochie” show.

Credit: Courtesy of Doug Vinson

Credit: Courtesy of Doug Vinson

And, then there was Victor, the wrestling bear, going up against those brave (or drunk) enough to try. While at the University of Georgia, Doug Vinson took on Victor for a school newspaper story. He lasted three minutes. “Victor about knocked my head off when he was swinging his right paw,” Doug recalled, “plus I don’t think he’d had a bath since he’d left the wilds.”

I usually did a quick walk-through of the long, low building that housed all of the blue-ribbon jams, jellies, pies and cakes, but I had little interest in the pens of cows and pigs. I did check out the prize-winning crafts and quilts, though.

“I enjoyed watching the judging,” recalled Roxann Malcolm Eberhart, who was in 4-H.

One of the winners lived next door to us. “In third grade, I entered an apron in the county extension sewing competition. I won a third-place ribbon,” Harriet Anderson recalled. “Two years later, I entered a dress, with matching shawl and purse. I placed for that also.”

Credit: Courtesy of University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

Credit: Courtesy of University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

I wasn’t too fond of the “thrill” rides — I’d heard too many tales of people throwing up — but I did enjoy the flyer that swung back and forth in increasing arcs. And, I loved colliding with other kids in the bumper cars.

However, I didn’t really trust the Ferris wheel, and I wasn’t the only one. Said Giles: “I was afraid the seat would tip over backward.”

Even though the carnival episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” had tipped me off that many of the sideshow games were fixed, I did toss the occasional hoop over a bowling pin. I think the best prize I ever won, though, was a plastic squirt gun.

Credit: Courtesy of University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

Credit: Courtesy of University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

However, some folks had better luck. Betsy Ross Crane, who lived near the fairgrounds, remembers her father tossing coins to win “both a beautiful platter and shaped bowl that we took home to my mom, which I now have today.”

Even better, she said, “on the way out one year, my dad won me three stuffed animals. I remember walking home clutching my stuffed animals, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world.”

For more county fair memories, check out Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog at billkingquickcuts.wordpress.com.

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