The Alabama National Fair

By on 10 October, 2013 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

There is really no good reason why we hadn’t been to the fair yet. We have lived in Montgomery for several years, and attending the fair seems like something that we would have done. Sure, we’re often out of town in the fall, but the fair is open for long enough that we simply don’t have a good excuse for having avoided it for this long. We finally went last night and it was amazing. You should re-arrange your calendar and try to get there before it ends for the year.

The fair traffics in nostalgia for both ancient agricultural harvest festival cultural events and for that simple time when you were a child and were scared to climb aboard a dizziness-inducing contraption that may or may not have been properly assembled during this particular stop on its cross-country tour. A few basics to state up front: The fair here in Montgomery is huge, but it is not the Alabama State Fair. This is the Alabama National Fair, which (at least in theory) competes with other fairs in Alabama. It is held out at our fairgrounds, out by Garrett Coliseum. It’s run by the Kiwanis Club with a number of sponsors. Last year, we interviewed Rep. Joe Hubbard about the fair and the Coliseum.

There are musical acts, sure, stars whose luster has faded quite a bit from zeniths that were never quite as high as they seemed. This year featured Anthony Hamilton, Ronnie Milsap and Foreigner. None of those exactly commanded our attention beyond a Wikipedia search. Turns out, Ronnie Milsap had a few more “popular” songs than I knew of … and he is still alive. Anthony Hamilton did some songs with The Nappy Roots, who are a pretty fantastic hip-hop group from Kentucky. Foreigner, well, they were immortalized by the Adult Swim cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

We went on Alfa night. When they aren’t busy keep Alabama’s property taxes unfathomably low, Alfa sometimes sponsors nights at the fair. We arrived after work, around 5:30, and were glad to be able to see some of the fair while it was still light out. We recommend going during the day and watching the fair come to life as dusk becomes night and the midways awakens with the buzzing of lights and teen hormones and giddy squeals of children that have won oversized novelty items.

The fair is more than carnival games and rides. We are fascinated by the contests, the most direct holdover from the fair’s agricultural roots. There are ribbons for everything: cakes, cows, paintings, sculptures made from Legos, quilts, flowers. People used to come to gawk at the largest pumpkins (or whatever) each farmer could muster, but now, there is nearly a warehouse full of assorted randomness. Nothing explains the categories, how someone would enter the competition next year, what criteria are used in judging, or much of anything. Here’s a flower that won third place. The name of the grower is scribbled in tiny print on a tag attached to the vase. Here’s an old magazine that was somehow deemed one of the best “collectables” entered. Here’s an old doll, there’s a tray of cupcakes. Someone who regularly entered her family’s famous plum jam recipe told us that the judges don’t even taste the jams – that they remain sealed throughout. How then do the judges know which is best? She wasn’t sure, but thought it had something to do with color and texture. Fascinating!

The animals are mostly depressing. The ducks seem to have pulled out some of their feathers and are unenthused by the tap water pond they have been provided. Cows seem bored and sad, tethered to a wall and besieged with unfamiliar noises. You can get shockingly close to them and you wonder how many “incidents” come from yokels poking at the wrong beasts. Fortunately, there is no unpleasant smell and the entire thing is worth seeing, if only to be reminded of the origins of the fair. Long before there was a tilt-a-whirl, people would gather to look at celebrated livestock.

We saw two shows while at the fair. First up were the pig races. We were especially impressed with both the cuteness of the pigs and the banter of the host. While we may have some questions about the American Pig Racing Association, those were mostly subjugated to the cornpone jokes and the gyrations of the audience members pulled from the crowd to “celebrate” the victory of a particular pig in each heat.

The second show was similar to the pig races in that it was a husband and wife traveling animal show, but we vastly preferred the Frisbee dogs to the hungry sprinting pigs. The Frisbee tossing couple traversed the nation to fairs and halftime shows with their posse of nine dogs, demonstrating good (but not great) jumping disc catching tricks. It was a really fun show with cute smart dogs and some good music. Some members of the audience seemed a little put off by the duo’s exhortations about the importance of adopting shelter dogs, but it was right up our alley. If you aren’t impressed by the transition of a neglected shelter dog into a perfectly-focused Frisbee catching machine, something is wrong with you. We were thrilled that they were using an entertaining show as a platform for telling people to adopt dogs and spay and neuter their pets.

Red.Velvet.Funnel.Cake.

Look, you’ve got a few days to get there. Go to the fair. A few more tips:

  • Ride the Ferris Wheel. If possible, get a copy of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and read about the Chicago World’s Fair where the Ferris Wheel made its shocking debut. It was a staggering marvel of human accomplishment, an architectural triumph that stood the engineering world on its head, elevating the ceiling of what was possible with steel. Now, you can go ride one for five tickets.
  • Eat a red velvet funnel cake. Nothing can move you so quickly from “this is one of the single best things I have ever, and I mean ever, put in my mouth” to “I feel like I have been punched in the stomach.” Pay the $7. Have a few bites. Share it. Don’t over-do it.
  • Ride one of the “dark room” rides. These are the old school “haunted house” rides where you get in a little car that moves along the track through a pitch black warehouse. Lights flash and horns blare, demonstrating shocking tableaus of pirates or ghosts or skeletons or whatever. You’ll enjoy how cheap and silly it all is. It’s so primitive and visceral and charmingly out-of-date – absolutely nothing like what you can experience online.
  • Walk through the Coliseum. It’s one of Montgomery’s real treasures and it has probably been a minute since you have been in there. Check out the innovative architecture. Imagine how great it could be if we poured a bunch of money into it and brought people to this fascinating and cool and, yes, iconic piece of Montgomery.
  • People watch. We don’t see enough of each other. Watch parents try to channel the enthusiasm of astonished children. Watch nervous teens on first dates. Watch people for whom this night may be the entertainment budget for the entire month, a night they have been waiting for all year. Take a bunch of pictures of things you don’t see in your day-to-day gas station and airport life. This is not an office. This is the vibrancy of sensory overload.
  • Play a game. Talk to the game administrator and ask where they are heading next or where they came from. Montgomery may be no different to them than Omaha. Think about what that life would be like and how it would be nice to see the country, but it’s also nice to have a home. Win a real live goldfish or a stuffed bear or a belt buckle. We walk the midway and one of the game-running barkers tells me that I need to win something for my wife. “You can do it!” he urged me. “I know I can do it,” I lied, “But the question is, ‘Do I need it?’” “Hey, man,” he said, lowering his eyebrows, “It’s the fair.” He was right.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, five fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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