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State fair's history is one big spectacle

Although the spectacles offered by the State Fair have changed over the past 156, the annual event offers one certainty: This year's fair is unique.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — On North Carolina's State Fairgrounds, the bright lights and flashy midway are nothing compared with the shows and sights of yesteryear.

In the fair of 2008, a video and photograph collection in the Village of Yesteryear gives fascinating glimpses of the fairs held over the past 156 years.

"I'm still curious about it and still asking questions," said Paul Blankinship, who has spent 30 years documenting the history of the State Fair.

Blankinship said he is enchanted by all that has shown up at the fair in the past 16 decades: "the food, the crowds, the exhibits, the agriculture" – not to mention the flying trapeze, stunts, flips, Ferris wheel and high-wire acts of the past.

Fairgoers of the past used to show up "fancy-dressed, like they were going to church; they had their hats on (for) a formal event," Blankinship said.

He recalled highlights of past fairs – including the 1884 fair, which lit up Raleigh with electricity for the first time.

"(It) turned the darkness, the night, into light," Blankinship said.

Later, one of the first airplanes to be seen in Raleigh showed up at the State Fair.

The fair of 1918, though, got canceled. The fairgrounds had been turned into a military training ground during World War I.

The fair moved to its current location, off Blue Ridge Road, in 1928, but the grounds were often a muddy mess.

"(It was) an unpleasant experience at times when the rains came, and they hadn't paved like they have now," Blankinship said.

Through all the years, the fair has always been a great spectacle, with "acrobat events that we don't see anymore, trick drivers that could turn on two wheels," the fair historian said.

In the early years of cars, drivers "ran them head-on into each other, and that's one reason there aren't too many Model As around anymore," Blankinship said.

He remembered one trick driver, Lucky Teeter, who would drive around "holding his hand out the window with a handkerchief while he's doing all the shifting and everything and steering."

"Those are memories that we won't experience again," Blankinship said.

Many fairgoers formed closed bonds and turned attending into an annual rite, he said.

"Many people have had their first dates out here and continue to come out as a family tradition," Blankinship said.

Although the fair is ever-evolving, it offers one certainty, the historian said.

"(It's) not going to be the same next year as it was last year," Blankinship said. "This year's fair is unique."


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