PHILADELPHIA — Kids strolled from one ride to the next with lemonade in-hand, adults lounged and watched horse races and political junkies sat at the edge of their seats, listening closely Thursday.
All the while, Nona Vickers and her family celebrated a generations-old tradition at the 130th Annual Neshoba County Fair.
“For us, the fair is about family,” she said. The cabin she stayed in was built in 1982 from wood taken from the home her mother grew up in. It’s taken some upkeep to share it with the family’s newest generation, but the work was worth it, she said.
“Four generations of our family have been to the fair now,” Vickers said, pointing and introducing all the children, grandchildren and other relatives shacked up in the cabin’s living room.
Over the years, the fair has changed some, said her brother, Ovid Vickers III. It used to be “wilder”: prone to more fighting and rougher around the edges.
Now it’s a family-friendly vacation spot that draws in tens of thousands to the state for politics, food, cow shows, music and more.
Like a Mississippi Bonnaroo - a popular Tennessee music festival, The Neshoba County Fair plays host to decorated cabins and trailers.
The Vickers’ father, a college professor and writer also named Ovid Vickers, wrote about the fair for decades. His work appeared in The Fair Times, which recounted memories and shared slice-of-life observations.
Politicians—especially conservative Republicans—ranging from the local and aspiring to the established have used the fair to court voters. In 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign here.
Most cabins are quick to offer a glass of water to any passerby, if not some food, too, said Andy Taggart, a Republican running for attorney general of Mississippi. He spoke to a few hundred Thursday.
“The fair is obviously a wonderful place for anybody who has any interest in politics, but also it’s a cultural icon,” he said in an interview. “This really is not just representative of Neshoba County but all over Mississippi, all over the United States.”
“When you get to the fairgrounds, it’s come one, come all,” Taggart added. “I’ve never felt unwelcomed in somebody’s cabin.”
“I was in a rock ’n’ roll band called the Road Runners (in junior high),” said Bubby Johnston, a candidate for Senate District 33. “We came up here for the talent show and got second place.” Since then, he’s visited as often as he can.
“It’s great just to come up here to socialize, make new friends and get reacquainted with old ones,” he said. As he was talking to a reporter, some of those old friends came by, shook hands and asked about his new venture into state politics.
“This (fair) is so unique. I don’t know if there’s anything like this in the world.”
Suzanne Ward’s father grew up in Philadelphia and attended the fair as a kid. Though he moved to Tupelo and she now lives in Columbus, the two decided to attend this year. She watched her favorite candidate for governor, former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller, speak Thursday, as well as a slew of other statewide candidates.
“It’s good to hear everybody, to hear all the different opinions,” she said. “And it confirms who you think you’re going to vote for.”
“We decided to come today and make a day trip of it. It’s always good in an election year.”
Between shifts, vendors found time to relax and take it all in.
Sissy Foster has worked shifts at the fair for eight years. As she lounged in a reclining fold-up chair, a drink in hand, she watched a horse race, one of the fair’s staples.
“It’s most definitely my favorite part,” she said.
“We’ve made a lot of friends, and we just keep coming back and back and back again, even though it’s the hottest place in the world,” said Fun Time Concessions owner Brenda Godwin, who traveled from Florida to work the fair.
“It’s very friendly,” she said. “When we first came there was a lot of fighting, just really a rowdy type crowd. That got controlled. Now you can feel very safe and people come out and just have a good time. Most of all, it’s the family atmosphere—that’s what I like.”
Around 22,000 people traveled to Neshoba County for the festivities this week, according to gate workers.