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Mississippi State Fair: Pride of the Deep South

1/17/2014

By Linda Van Slyke

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Given Executive Director Billy Orr's enthusiasm, it's no wonder that the Mississippi State Fair had a banner year in 2013. 

He proudly shared the following:  "We have about the best-attended fair in the Deep South.  There's no theme park in the State of Mississippi, so this is the most economical place people can go that's close to home with a lot of good rides and one of the finest Kiddielands in the whole country."

Keeping em' coming

Orr continued, "We had a record 706,884 this year for attendance.  On Sunday, October 13th we had 121,014 - the largest attended day we've ever had."

He further explained, "People come from all over the state to the fair, and from Louisiana, and some from Alabama.  The majority of them are from Mississippi. We're located right in  he heart of Jackson, so when Jackson State University has a football game, a lot of those folks will then come to the fair."

In fact, the Mississippi State Fairgrounds are "located right in downtown Jackson off the interstate."  Orr elaborated, "You can see the governor's mansion and the capitol from our grounds, so a lot of people come down to eat lunch with us Monday through Friday.  That's one of the big favorite times of the day for the vendors - some of them therefore have real good sales from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every single day."

Admission and parking are free during those weekday lunch hours.  This certainly pays, and pays well.  Orr explained, "We always have at least a minimum of 5,000.  You can then charge the vendors more because you're making them a lot more money.  During the last three years, we've only lost one vendor, so that tells you they're doing all right or they wouldn't keep coming back."

What a deal! 

Although free lunchtime admission seems unbeatable, the regular gate admission was also quite a deal.  Orr explained, "For about the past five years, admission and parking have been $5.00 each.  Once you pay that, everything else is free except food and rides."

He continued, "I would say that the normal adult rides would run about $5.00 per ride, and this year we had two Thursday nights when all rides were two dollars each.  Then on October 7th, in honor of Columbus Day, we had an 'all you can ride for $25.00' special from noon to closing time.  Because schools happened to be in session that day, we told everyone: 'If the principal won't let you out, bring him or her with you..."

Orr said that North American Midway Entertainment (NAME) has been providingrides "since about 1984."  NAME's website claims they "the world's largest traveling outdoor amusement park," serving "over 15 million fairgoers every single year in 20 states and 4 Canadian provinces, including 10 of the top 50 fairs in North America."

Never a dull moment 

When folks have (temporarily, of course) had their fill of the delicious Midway food (chicken on the stick being one such favorite), they can then partake of some wonderful entertainment.  This year there was everything from youth livestock shows to traditional dances of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Billy Orr recalled reading a 2009 National Geographic article by Garrison Keillor about his trip to the Iowa State Fair.  Keillor had mentioned these three contests: a mother/daughter look-alike, a Mr. Beard, and a Mr. Legs.  This inspired Orr to ask the folks in Iowa just how that all worked. After getting this information... voila!  The Mississippi State Fair then had those same three contests.

Orr also spoke excitedly about 2013's music lineup:  "On opening night we had Don Williams - he's one of the older country and western stars - he's very good and very popular.  On Thursday we had Eric Benet and he too was very, very popular.  In our area, the black/white population is about 50/50, and the black and white entertainers are equally popular."

Wikipedia explains that Jackson in general "is a city famous for its music - including Gospel, Blues, and R&B."  It is "also home to the world famous Malaco Records recording studio." Orr reported that this year's fair featured some "Bluegrass, Gospel, and all kinds of different  local talent."

It takes a village...

Getting the word out regarding all that the Mississippi State Fair has to offer is a feat unto  itself.  Orr said, "We have a statewide paper here in Jackson, and we advertise some there. 

We also work with TV stations all around the state.  Plus, we have some wonderful sponsors."

This year's sponsors included Trustmark (Senior American Day), Marathon (Circus Maximus), Texaco (via Country Showdown), Budweiser (Pavilion), Diamond Jacks (State Fair Courtyard), the Mississippi 4-H and FFA (Livestock Shows), the Mississippi Farm Bureau (Pig Racing), the Dixie Iron Tractor Club (Antique Tractor Pull), and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (Biscuit Baking).

To give people an idea of just how much teamwork sponsors can render, Orr gave the example of this year's Biscuit Making Booth.  He explained that "Prairie Farms donated 530 gallons of buttermilk, TJ Blackburn 270 gallons of molasses-type syrup, Sam's Club 700 pounds of lard, and Kroger 7200 pounds of self-rising flour."

The Trade Mart is located at one end of the fair's mile-long Midway.  The colorful and comprehensive "Mississippi State Fair 2013 Fun Guide" explains that it not only houses a number of key exhibits and shows (Arts and Crafts, Food Preservation, Antique Cars, 4-H,  State Fair Talent and Beekeepers), but also features "vendors from across the great state of Mississippi and the US selling unique products and providing you with some great information."

It truly takes a village the size of Mississippi to pull together such a successful extravaganza.  Folks who attend next year's fair (which Orr says will begin "the first Wednesday in October,  as always") will no doubt discover for themselves why Jackson was named "one of the top 10 friendliest cities in the United States."   

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