Winton-Salem Time Traveler: Take Me to the Fair!



Autumn is in the air, and in Winston-Salem, that means it’s time for the Dixie Classic Fair. Children eating candy apples, popcorn, and cotton candy; 4-H Club members showing their livestock; fruits, vegetables, and pumpkins on display; and the midway lights and rides with fireworks overhead. There’s something for everyone at the Dixie Classic Fair!

The fair’s beginnings date to 1882 when Rosa Mickey Fries, the newly married Mrs. Henry Fries, helped organize a “Wheat Fair” at Pace Warehouse. The fair was so successful that organizers planned a fair for the following year. Tobacco was increasing in importance in Forsyth County, so in the 1890s, Richard J. Reynolds suggested that tobacco be included in the fair. By 1898, the fair was nicknamed the Tobacco Fair or Exhibit. Tobacco companies prepared elaborate displays to show their products. Agricultural products, cattle, and flour were still included, and entertainment was added to the program.

In 1898, the Piedmont Park Company was formed to operate the fair. Shares of stock were sold – the first 500 shares sold for $10.00 each. Plans were made to purchase land off N. Liberty Street to relocate and expand the present fair. Once land was purchased, the director persuaded the streetcar company to extend its line up Liberty Street so people could get to the fair. The streetcar company was concerned the line would have limited use, so the fair promoters offered discount fair tickets to anyone who rode the streetcar to the fair.

The fair was held in the N. Liberty Street location from 1908 to 1950. During that time, adjoining tracts of land were purchased so the fair could expand. William Neal Reynolds helped the fair expand in the 1920s and 1930s by promoting horse racing and financing a race track and grandstand. Mr. Reynolds loved horse racing and would end his racing season at the fair. Audiences came to watch all types of racing – foot, harness, and motorcycles, as well as variety shows that performed at the fair. The agricultural theme of the early fairs was continued in the new location.

By the late 1940s, the fair had again outgrown its location. In 1949, Charles H. Babcock offered land for a new fairground adjoining Cherry Street Extension and facing on 30th Street. In 1951, the fair opened in its new location with all new buildings. People still came in large numbers to see their favorite attractions. A new grandstand was built and has been used over the years for political rallies, stock car races, shows featuring top-name entertainers, and the daredevil tricks of Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Show. In the 1950s, school children were treated to free fair tickets and half a day out of school to attend the fair.

Some people go to the fair for the variety of food offered at the booths run by community organizations. The aromas from all the eating places combine for a memorable fair experience. Jelly, bread, desserts, and vegetables are judged and displayed for fairgoers to see, along with handicrafts, antiques, photographs, and flowers. Livestock, poultry, and other animals fill the barns and are heard all over the fair.

The midway featuring the James E. Strates Show, and before that the World of Mirth, gives fairgoers thrills and chills with exciting rides. The Village of Yesterday shows how life was in another time and an education building opened in 1991 to house many exhibits. As night falls at the fairgrounds and the colorful lights on the rides and booths appear, the fair is a magical place. Then the fireworks light up the sky to signal the close of the fair day.

The fairgrounds are used year-round for events such as picnics, weddings, exhibits, and shows. The Dixie Classic Fair, second in size only to the State Fair in Raleigh, has been operated by the City of Winston-Salem since 1969 and is self-supporting – no tax dollars are used for its operation. While many things about the fair have changed over the years, one thing is the same as the first fair in 1882. Fairgoers came to the fair for a good time and were not disappointed.

Coming in November: Winston-Salem Loves a Parade!

By Molly Grogan Rawls, author of the Winston-Salem Time Traveler website. Contact Molly at mollygroganrawls.com or winstonsalemtimetraveler.com.


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