By Anne McKee
The Meridian Star
I arrived with a mission on my mind. Yes, I needed to locate Miss Ellen Johnson Spendrup’s Fair cabin, number 34, located on Founders Square – a very exacting location since her people were one of the original Fair families -- the most famous county fair in the state of Mississippi, and, maybe even the whole nation.
You see Miss Ellen might just be one of the most colorful characters to tread the pathways of the fair. Her cabin has had many visitors over the years. Miss Ellen sat on the cabin’s front porch each year until her death in 1996 at the age of 97. She served as Fair secretary/treasurer until her death – kept a watchful eye on all monies. No one ever tired of “talking Miss Ellen” – everyone has their own story.
The first Fair was in 1889. Ellen’s aunt, Fannie Johnson Smith, was in attendance. By the next year, Miss Fannie's parents, William Erazths (Raz) Johnson and wife, Emily Fox Johnson, became active supporters. The Johnson family picture dated 1893, and made at the Fair, can be located in Steve Stubbs interesting book, Mississippi Giant House Party. The Johnson family remained active “Fair Families” from that time forward.
Regular visitors to the fair these days are Miss Ellen’s great nieces, Carolyn Palmer and Amy Johnson Thompson, who shared the following story about Grand Pappy Johnson, Oscar. The Johnson family owned a big country store at Coldwater. Grand Pappy Johnson lived to 97 years of age. The Johnson family is considered one of the founding families of The Neshoba County Fair, along with the Harrison, Parker, and Richardson families
There have been many interesting Johnson family tales, and it was difficult to make a limited choice, however Grand Pappy Johnson must top the list. It seemed on the occasion of Mississippi Governor Whitfield’s visit in 1923, he stopped by to rock on the porch with Grand Pappy. Everyone knew that Grand Pappy’s version of lemonade was the best on the fair grounds, made by Grand Pappy’s own special formula: two parts lemonade and one part Southern Comfort. After a couple of hours of conversation, and generous portions of the wonderful lemonade, the Governor suddenly remembered a speech he was scheduled to present at the pavilion; however he was about an hour late. He just shrugged and said, “Oh well, they knew everything I was going to say anyway, Oscar. I think I’ll have a refill,” and he continued to rock, sip, and converse!
Granddaughter, Ellen Johnson, obviously inherited a large amount of Grand Pappy Johnson’s charm. Someone described her as a free spirit. She counted among her admirers former Mississippi State Attorney General, Mike Moore, who brought flowers every year, and asked her political advice. She was the Queen Bee of the Fair until the day she died, and enjoyed the attention of a large number of the media. She always had a good story for every newspaper reporter or television commentator, and, sometimes poured a glass of the special “lemonade recipe” for her favorites. Miss Ellen was a straight talker. Even though she could step on the toes of some, everyone was her friend.
Many people have their favorite Miss Ellen story and I have mine as well. My youngest son met Miss Ellen one July afternoon as she sat on the porch of her Fair cabin. As usual; she was busy as she held court for all of her admirers. My son dated Miss Ellen’s great, great, great niece, Kelly Thompson, and they have since married. But on this afternoon, Miss Ellen made her first observation of the young man. She looked him up and down after the introduction, and after several minutes finally stated in a firm voice, “Well, you look better than the last one she had!” That was when my son showed his dimples, and displayed a charming smile. He immediately joined the ranks of Miss Ellen’s admirers. She quickly offered him a glass of lemonade – a sign that he had made it into her inner circle.
And so it was – one hot July day at the Neshoba County Fair.