NCM: A History of the Coweta County Fair
By Alex McRae
The Newnan-Coweta Magazine
Today’s Americans have a hard time choosing between entertainment options ranging from multi-screen cinemas to theme parks to 500 channels of TV.
But until World War II ended, big-time entertainment was confined to America’s big cities. Rural communities like Coweta County settled for spectacles on a smaller scale.
Besides great entertainment, the fair offered a chance to exhibit prize livestock, show off mouth-watering baked and canned goods and, above all, the opportunity to mix and mingle with neighbors.
The formula must be working. For over 100 years the Coweta County Fair has kept the crowds smiling—and coming back.
“People still look forward to the fair every year,” says Tray Baggarly, Director of Event Services for Coweta County. “We’ve got a better location, better rides and more parking and it’s a great family experience.”
Baggarly says a check of license plates during the fair is proof of the event’s popularity.
“People come here from all over,” he says. “It’s a great show.”
It is. But today’s visitors wouldn’t recognize the sights and sounds of earlier fairs. For years, the Coweta event was referred to as a Fall Festival. By 1874, it had grown into a full-fledged County Fair doing well enough that the Coweta County Fair Commission put a notice in The Newnan Herald announcing that prizes that year would be paid “in sterling silverware and not plated as is generally awarded at the fair.”
The 1874 events included a “best plowman” competition, horse races and a beautiful baby contest.
Not even a public health scare that would send today’s Coweta residents racing for the emergency room kept hardy locals away. At the end of the 1874 event, a newspaper article gushed over the record attendance and said the turnout might have been even higher “had it not been for a small pox alarm which spread and circulated so rapidly the week before.”
The 1875 fair received less news coverage and a fair-type event was barely mentioned again in local news coverage until 1911, when the Fall Festival returned, complete with the Royal Queen Contest.
Instead of judges, the Queen was chosen by popular vote. Voters paid a penny for the privilege of picking the prettiest.
Attendance figures weren’t reported, but it’s doubtful the 1911 fair could hold a candle to a fall appearance by legendary American sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who brought her “Young Buffalo Wild West Show” to Newnan and strutted her act’s stuff in a mile-long parade.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression and put the show on hold, but by 1935, the fair was back and bigger than ever, featuring horse and automobile races and loads of new midway games and shows. The midway went dark again during World War II, but the fair returned in 1946.
Lifelong Newnan resident Norma Haynes was a young girl when World War II ended and still remembers when the fair was held just a few blocks from the Coweta County Courthouse in a pasture owned by Hettie Long that stretched from LaGrange Street to First Avenue. Part of that pasture is now the parking lot behind Newnan City Hall.
“We loved it,” Haynes says. “We couldn’t wait for the fair to come around.” Haynes was leery of the vintage Ferris wheel, but says the ride that scared her most was “The Swings,” which consisted of wooden chairs hung from chains attached to a pole that “was probably 50 feet off the ground.” The pole turned, and the chairs hanging from the chains swung and went so high, Haynes says, “if that chain had come off you’d have been in Franklin before you landed.”
Haynes wasn’t a huge fan of midway games, but says many of her friends tested their skills in an effort to earn a prize.
“You could win a nasty old teddy bear,” Haynes says. “I didn’t care about that.”
Haynes says her mother’s greatest fear was germs imported from the fair’s last stop.
“I’d have to take off my shoes before I came inside,” Haynes says. “Mother washed the soles of my shoes and then my feet and I’d run inside and take a bath and gargle with Listerine. I never caught anything so maybe it worked.”
In 1950 a new fairgrounds complex debuted on Temple Avenue. The venue featured additional space for exhibits and livestock shows, upgraded entertainment acts (and restrooms), and new rides and attractions. A highlight of the 1950 show was a man being shot out of a cannon and over the Ferris wheel.
Locals were so eager for everyone to enjoy the new facility that inmates at the Coweta County Prison were bused to the fairgrounds for an afternoon of free rides courtesy of Johnny Tinsley, owner of John T. Tinsley Shows, which supplied the rides and midway shows that year.
Coweta native Jim McGuffey grew up on a family farm near Moreland and says that in rural parts of the county, the fair was extra special.
“Most of us never got to town but on Saturday,” he says. “But when the fair came we got a half day off school to go. Farm kids spent a lot of time at the livestock exhibits. That was what our living was all about.”
Increased exhibition space allowed display room for interests other than agricultural, including the antique collection exhibited by the local Daughters of the Confederacy.
McGuffey says his favorite attraction was the Ferris wheel. And not because he was a die-hard thrill seeker. McGuffey would try and place himself in line so that when the next two-passenger car loaded, he would “accidentally” be paired with a pretty girl.
“I prayed I’d sit with a pretty girl and the Ferris wheel would get stuck at the top and we’d have to stay up there,” he says. “It never happened, but that was my dream.”
Young men enjoyed testing their skills at midway games like throwing baseballs at milk bottles, but were more intrigued by “sideshows” held in the tents.
McGuffey says he didn’t even consider sneaking into the hootchie-cootchie show. “My mama would have worn me out,” he says. But he and some buddies got a glimpse of the “Wild Man,” whose act included killing and eating a live chicken.
McGuffey says the bloody feast wasn’t as scary as the rumor that the chicken-eating “Wild Man” had actually dated some local girls during his stay in Newnan. “We wanted to know who they were so we could stay away,” McGuffey says. “We never found out.”
Fairs always reflected the mood and spirit of the times. In 1959, at the height of a national UFO craze, a “Spaceship from Mars” promoting the fair dropped miniature flying saucers all over the county. Each saucer had a number. Numbers were drawn at random each night at the fair, and winners got prizes. Fans packed the place.
In 1960, as nuclear tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union soared, the local Civil Defense unit demonstrated how to build a bomb shelter.
But in 1962, succumbing to civic sensibilities, the fair canceled girlie shows and clip joints.
As other entertainment options grew over the years, the fair lost some of its luster. That changed in the late 1990s when the Kiwanis Club of Newnan, which has sponsored the fair every year but one since 1949, purchased property on Pine Road and donated it to the county for use as a new fairground. The county bought additional property that now houses fair administration and exhibition buildings, expanded parking space and the midway area. A new fairgrounds complex began to take shape.
Jim McGuffey served on the Coweta County Commission when the current fairground was developed and when it opened in 2001.
“You can’t find a better facility anywhere,” McGuffey says. “People love it. And the shows get bigger each year.”
The fairgrounds property now includes the W.C. Adamson Horse Arena, named for a longtime county commissioner, a nature center named in honor of McGuffey, and the Walker Horne Outdoor Theater, honoring longtime Kiwanian and fair booster Walker Horne.
Today’s fairgoers flock to the upgraded rides and midway attractions offered by the Dixieland Carnival Co., and exhibit spaces are packed each night with crowds eager to see everything from chickens to cows exhibited by local 4-H members.
The fair’s popularity is reflected in attendance numbers. In 2011, over 40,000 attended, according to Kiwanis fair chairman Scott Cortner. None went home frowning.
“We’ve got great amusements and the kind of entertainment every night you won’t find anywhere else,” Cortner says.
But the main beneficiaries of the fair are Coweta’s children. In the last decade, the Kiwanis Club has donated over $1 million to local children’s charities.
“Children’s charities are always our main focus,” Cortner says.
Whether you’re screaming yourself hoarse on a carnival ride, seeing a Blue-Ribbon hog for the first time or relaxing with the family on a blanket under the stars as you enjoy entertainment ranging from big-name acts to earnest efforts by local up-and-comers, the fair remains a unique slice of local life.
But the Coweta County Fair is more than an annual event that offers great entertainment while providing for the needs of local children. It’s a reminder that while the place we call home embraces the future, Cowetans never forget to remember and revere their rural roots.
For more stories from the September-October issue of The Newnan-Coweta Magazine, please visit http://newnancowetamag.com .