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
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.
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.
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
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
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
factions are gone but the fair's core mission has survived, David
Viers said Tuesday. He manages the fair for the private fair
"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.
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
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."
Olgar Roderick was
the "Bearded Lady" with the Johnny J. Jones circus sideshow on
the midway in this promotional copy from Feb. 16, 1932.
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.
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
"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.
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
"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