County Fair a Show and Showcase

There's not much to see at the birthplace of the Volusia County Fair.

Brown weeds along a chain-link fence have replaced the grand entrance where Tin Lizzies sputtered through a three-story domed Moorish-style arch. Concrete rubble marks the spot where an artesian fountain bubbled. Bare dirt and grass have replaced winding paths through a flowered jungle of exotic plants.

An asphalt road cuts right through the middle of the oval track where Barney Oldfield and Lee Bible put the pedal to the metal before a cheering grandstand. Brambles of trees grow in the infield where daredevils in flying machines and parachutes entertained crowds that included Florida governors.

All gone.

Nothing much remains of that fledgling fair except the core beliefs that gave it birth and two or three ramshackle buildings of wood and rusty tin. No one would know, but in 1924, those were brand-new exhibit buildings, draped in bunting and flags and holding a thousand products of proud Volusia County citizens.

For one shining week every winter, until World War II, the exhibit halls held the symbols of life in this place between the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River. The best citrus was piled high, the finest vegetables spread and crated, preened poultry, combed cattle, bathed hogs, and tractors, jams, preserves, honey and handicrafts made by proud women, children and men -- all were carefully exhibited for winter visitors and locals.

 

News-Journal/CHAD PILSTER

NOW: Hannah Hart, rear, and Mariah Pulver, both 13, brush their mixed-breed heifers Wednesday at the Volusia County Fairgrounds in DeLand. The DeLand eighth-graders are in the Tigers 4H program at Southwestern Middle School.

 

 

News-Journal file

AND THEN: The first Volusia County fair took place in 1924; three years later, amid the new exhibit buildings were preened poultry, like these, fresh vegetables and handicrafts.


The products and people of versatile Volusia were enthroned with pride.

All the fair's history wasn't so bright. Just before World War II, the fair disappeared completely for years when the grounds beside the train tracks west of DeLand became an industrial site, then it reappeared in tents in 1955 on borrowed land. It played two years, then lapsed again, off and on until 1969, when it found a permanent home east of DeLand.

Despite many changes, the notion of community pride has survived.

Look for it when the 63rd fair opens at the fairground near Interstate 4 and State Road 44 today. It's there, behind the spinning, noisy carnival rides, inside the exhibit buildings.

The first fair president, S.A. Wood, a banker and DeLand mayor, wanted to "bring everyone in the county together and showcase the products of the county . . . forget sectional lines and work shoulder to shoulder to advance the interests of the county as a whole, and show citizens living in friendship and neighborliness," a 1924 news article said. A 1916 attempt to get a fair started had not caught hold.

There were real reasons to seek togetherness. The county had survived a period of sharp divisiveness when there were a number of efforts by provincial factions to divide Volusia County into two or even three counties. The fair's mission was, in part, to heal and unify.

Strong, divisive factions are gone but the fair's core mission has survived, David Viers said Tuesday. He manages the fair for the private fair association.

"I think that's still pretty close to what we're doing," said Viers. "We show Volusia County citizens the agricultural products produced in the county and bring them together to have a good time in a safe environment." Not only are agricultural products exhibited, but also homemaking, crafts, art works and industry from across the county are shown for visitors and local residents.

 

News-Journal/CHAD PILSTER

Robert Martin, an employee of Deggeller Attractions and from Alabama, fixes the lights on the Cliff Hanger ride Wednesday at the Volusia County Fairgrounds in DeLand.


The fair has always had two faces -- the show and the showcase.

The show is the glitter, the music, rides, carnival, foods and attractions that help draw visitors and pay for the showcase of exhibits and products of home and farm and industry that win ribbons and honors.

In the early years, schools all over the county were closed for at least one day of the fair and children were bused to the fairgrounds to see their school's exhibits and take in the sights. In some cities, businesses closed their doors at noon on opening day. There was free bus service to the fair and families would bring a picnic lunch and spend the entire day.

"It was a big day," said Corky Dannals, DeLand, who visited the 1930s fair when she was a child. "You didn't have to go to school that day, you know? It was really something to look forward to.

"I remember all those different smells. Popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs. I think of the bright colors and the happy sounds and the music, the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel music."

 

News-Journal file

Olgar Roderick was the "Bearded Lady" with the Johnny J. Jones circus sideshow on the midway in this promotional copy from Feb. 16, 1932.

 

 

News-Journal file

Newspaper clipping of "World's Fattest Family."


In the early years, the nation's largest carnival outfit, Johnny J. Jones Shows, filled the fairgrounds with rides and shows.

Johnny's thrilling rides were known up and down the East Coast, but he also brought the "smallest mother and baby in the world," "the fattest family in the world," Olgar Roderick, the "world's only bearded lady," and many other "freaks and wonders."

The colorful carnival boxcars and wagons are fixed in Dannals' memory, as are the carnival folk.

"The people were different, odd people, interesting, the kind of people you didn't see walking down the (Woodland) boulevard," she said.

Billings included Miss Montie Le May who ascended two miles above the fairgrounds in her balloon, then leaped, opened a parachute, cut it away, opened another, cut it away and opened another in her "triple parachute jump." There was Hazel Watkins, the "mile-a-minute girl, fastest and most reckless" driver; Frank Frakes, whose act included crashing his plane into a burning building in front of the grandstands; chariot races; and a game of auto polo.

Horses, motorcycles and cars raced, sometimes filmed by newsreel cameramen from Paramount, Fox, Hearst and Pathe.

Dannals recalls the primitive but attractively decorated exhibit halls, partly because her mother wouldn't allow her to go on rides until she had seen all the exhibits. People from the corners of the county exhibited their best. The first year, New Smyrna captured seven first prizes, Oak Hill 16 and Samsula 27. Mrs. W.J. Tritt of Daytona won best of show with her barred Plymouth Rock hen and Holly Hill's Everette Drake won a blue ribbon for his Rhode Island Red rooster.

"The fair was a very happy, exciting place and in the '30s, there wasn't a lot to be happy about at that point. Everybody was just living with what they had, you know?"

It's still a happy, exciting place to be, Viers said. The biggest basic difference is that everything is more advanced and modernized -- "most all the rides are computerized." And everything is bigger -- today's largest fair building would hold all of the original exhibit halls.

"I think everything is more manufactured and glitzier now," said Dannals, "but basically, the county fair is still pretty much the same. The sense of feeling and smells and noises are pretty much the same, and it's nice to see the kids still enjoying preparing and showing the animals. That's really good because it gives kids a good grounding and sort of an appreciation of things that really matter."

Dannals is right about that. Many things that really matter will be on the fairgrounds today, some of the same things that mattered in 1924. Look for them behind the things that don't really matter, behind the rides and the glitz.

    - News Journal


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