The express purpose of the writing of this column is very simple. Many, many people and families have moved to Lebanon, Tennessee and to Wilson County, Tennessee from other places who have absolutely no knowledge of our history and of how we came to be and of who and what we are.
Long gone are the valued historians such as I.W. P. Buchanan, G. Frank Burns, Dixon Lanier Merritt, J. Bill Frame, Virginia and Dick Lawlor, Eugene Sloan, Hugh Walker, Ellen Schlink, Herman Eskew, Jr., Paul Wooten, Jr. and many others.
In this edition, since it is almost time for the award winning Wilson County Fair to take place, our topic for today will be just that-- THE WILSON COUNTY FAIR!
In this edition, you the reader must again pardon me for being long-winded. However, the true history of some subjects cannot be told accurately by just telling "snippets" of the truth. Sometimes, you must tell the whole story.
The first known fair to be held in Wilson County was the Third Division Fair held in 1853. "The period from about 1850 to 1870 was what historians call the golden age of the agricultural fair. It was the golden age not just because of the manifold expansion of agricultural societies and fairs, but because in this era before experimental farms, agricultural colleges, and farmer's mobility in the form of the automobile, fairs provided the greatest share of new agricultural ideas and education and the best social event for growers across the country. To improve their practices, farmers and ranchers of the era had to rely on trial and error, intuition, neighbor's advice--and the fair. According to Fair Historian Wayne Neely, "Christmas, the Fourth of July, and the county fair, varied by the occasional picnic or circus, long remained the traditional holidays of rural America."
The location of the 1853 Wilson county Fair was on Coles Ferry Pike, where the Jimmy Floyd Center stands today. The old fairgrounds and the location were chosen because of the everlasting spring of water. The spring is still flowing today and is rightfully known as the "Fair Spring". The fair was held annually at this location until about 1884.
Actual Membership Ticket from the 1858 Wilson County Fair
Photo Courtesy: Johnny Knowles
In 1919, a group of citizens organized and held a two day fair on the Public Square with exhibits being housed in the Courthouse on the Square. This fair was so successful that a fair board was formed and land was acquired on Coles Ferry Pike, being the very same land used for previous fairs. This was considered to be the first fair of the 1900's, even though a small two day fair was held in that year. This fair was held for the express purpose of determining if there was enough interest from the community to formally organize a structure to hold an annual county fair. Mr. Homer Hancock was the President, and he later became Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of Tennessee, while Mr. A. W. McCartney was Secretary of the body.
IN 1920, a grandstand, stables and one cattle barn were erected and over 20,000 people attended the fair in 1920. At this time, Mr. J. H. Grissim was President of the Fair, and Mr. A.W. McCartney was the Secretary.
A very interesting story about the 1923 Fair appeared in the September 20, 1923 issue of the Lebanon Democrat:
"An exhibit which fascinated hundreds of spectators was that of the Clark Grave Vault Company in the Seagraves and Sons tent. The vault was demonstrated by a representative of the company who showed that although immersed in water it preserved it's contents intact, proving this fact by placing a lighted cigar inside the vault, and after a few minutes taking it out and smoking it on the first fire. Also on display was the funeral home's new Packard ambulance which came in handy for caring for any sick or injured patrons of the fair. This ambulance was also entered in some of the ring numbers along with the Lincoln and other high priced cars. The slogan "Tennessee's Big County Fair" began to appear in advertising as the L. J. Heath Show brought in four rides: The Caterpillar, The Ferris Wheel, The Whip and the Merry-Go-Round.
In 1927, all Confederate Veterans were admitted free to the Fair.
THE 1930 COUNTY FAIR
Black horse against the green turf, contrasted in the artificial light...Hot dog stands smelling like hot dog stands....Gangling boy in overalls, a derby and a strawberry ice cream cone...Sudden, noisy silence when the motordrome engines are cut off ... Howard Edgerton riding the merry-go-round.
Couples blushing out of the Rocky Road to Dublin....Stairs behind the grandstand always crowded...as is the water tank below, with its cups hanging on chains...Allison Humphreys Sr., swinging along...Crowded, but cool and quiet, are the stalls and passageways beneath the grandstand...
The Midway, getting in everyone's blood....and they spend and like it...Students in town for the school year, wandering around vacantly,...Tough looking wrestler who takes on all comers...Ballyhooing jazz bands that aren't built to soothe....Prof. Claude Lowery, coming out of the World's Greatest Congress of Captivating Curiosities....Barkers, just as colorful as fiction paints them....Graham Baird, doing the Penny Arcade.....
And there, ladies and gentlemen, you have a few scattered irrelevancies from the first Fair story I ever wrote...and I wrote it just an even decade ago, in the September of 1930.....You can feel it...that something that makes a county fair a County Fair. You can taste it in the cotton candy; you can smell it in the onion-drenched hamburgers; you can hear it in the droning rasp of the barkers; you can see it in the dust on your shoes. Sure you can. But you can't punch it out on a typewriter, set it in hot lead, spread black ink all over it, slam it up against a sheet of white newsprint, and expect to have anything left. (I've tried.) September 12, 1940, THE LEBANON DEMOCRAT, Paul Wooten, Jr. from his column.."And IN THAT TOWN." HISTORY OF WILSON COUNTY TENNESSEE, ITS LAND AND ITS LIFE. Pages 443 and 444. By Paul Wooten, Jr.
In 1936, James E. Ward was named county extension agent and numerous improvements were made to the fairgrounds including construction of a new cattle barn.
1938 saw the dates of the fair change from September to August.
1939 saw excellent results reported from the change in dates.
In 1940 the fair returned to September 11, 12, 13 and 14. Reports indicate that the fair opened each day at 8:00 a.m. Roth's Blue Ribbon Shows provided eleven rides on the midway. The fair continued during World War II as a morale booster with servicemen being given special discounts.
1942, Patriotism was the theme of the fair.
In 1943, the dates of the fair were delayed because the fairgrounds were occupied by the Army which was on maneuvers here in Wilson County. Less congestion on the roads around the fairgrounds was promised by the Army and no blackouts would be in effect during the fair.
1944 was the 25th year for the fair. Shortly after the fair had ended "On Thursday night around 11 o'clock, September 21, 1944, a fire destroyed the grandstands at the Wilson County Fair. A livestock sale had been held at the fairgrounds that afternoon and although the grandstand was a total loss, the firefighters did save the livestock barn which contained over $10,000 worth of livestock from the sale. Lost in the fire were equipment owned by the fair board and B. O. Tucker and Green H. Tucker. Fair secretary A. W. McCartney estimated the loss at about $15,000 of which about one third was insured. He was quick to point out that the fair would continue despite the loss and that a new facility would replace the one lost in the blaze. Fairgoers of the 50's and 60's will remember this new grandstand.
In 1945, a new larger grandstand was built for the fair. The 27th edition of the Great Wilson County Fair, in 1946 the fair set an attendance record that year with over 12,000 people in attendance on Friday night alone. There was good cause for celebration too. The war was over, the maneuvers were gone, and wartime restrictions had been lifted. The L. J. Heath Shows brought a big midway to the fair, featuring a giant military searchlight which, according to the show, could be seen for up to 100 miles.
In 1950, the big attraction for the fair was a television set. The fair continued through the 1950s and was purchased by a new group of stockholders in the 1960s. The last year for the fair under the ownership of the stockholders was 1969. From 1970 through 1972, no fair was held in Wilson County.
In 1973, the Lebanon Jaycees revived the fair. The fair continued to be held on the Coles Ferry Pike property until 1974, when the fairgrounds were sold at auction. In 1974, a group of individuals met at the Farm Bureau office to organize a campaign to ask the county to purchase 10 acres of the Baddour Property on the Sparta Pike in Lebanon. The Baddour Estate, which was represented by Mayor Bill Baird, comprised approximately 104 acres. This group was told by Mayor Baird that they could purchase either ten acres or all 104 acres. After contacting the members of the County Court, the citizens knew that there was enough support to purchase a ten acre tract of the Baddour property. When the County Court met in March 1974, a member of the Court, Mr. Bob Burton, of LaGuardo, made the motion to purchase the entire 104 acre tract of the Baddour estate. The motion was seconded by Mr. Nathan Hankins and was passed by the County Court. In 1975, the fair moved to the new James E. Ward Agricultural Center and was then renamed the Mid-State Fair. Johnny's United Shows ran the midway that year. The Jaycees continued to sponsor the fair through 1978, when it was discontinued.
In 1979, Wilson County Promotions was formed with the twofold purpose of holding the Wilson County Fair and for the purpose of improving the county owned James E. Ward Agricultural Center. The first item of business for the new organization was to continue with the 1979 Wilson County Fair. Forming a new Fair Board and electing officers was essential to being able to hold a fair under the new leadership in the fall of 1979. This Fair Board started with 30 members and was willing to start a new beginning for a Wilson County Fair. The 1979 Wilson County Fair was held August 27 through September 1. Big Hearted Jerry's Amusements owned by Jerry Bohlander served a s the carnival for the 1979 Wilson County Fair. In 1979, attendance topped out at 12,000 people.
In 1980, the theme was Building Community Pride. Competition is one key aspect of the county fair. Many contests scheduled for the 1980 fair included pageant events, such as the Doll Parade, King of the Fair, Fair Princess, Fairest of the Fair and the Baby Show were big draws for these early fairs.
In 1981, the theme was Building A Tradition. Events added to the 1981 fair were recommended and approved: Dog Show, Poultry Show, Rose Show, Duck Calling Contest, Goofo the Clown, a Parade, School Day events, Chain Saw Contests and a Honey Show. The carnival that year was Big Hearted Jerry. The Old Fiddle Contest was scheduled for Friday from 6:00 until midnight and it included Bluegrass Music with Buck dancing and Square dancing. Five categories of competition included Fiddle, banjo, String Band, and Open with no electrical instruments. Admission that year was $1.50 and children under 6 admitted for free.
In 1982, the theme was Building Blocks and Stepping Stones. The carnival was Johnny's United Shows, owned by Arthur Lampkin. The fair attendance that year was 15,500 people. Fifty members of the Antique Automobile Club of America brought out their antique vehicles to the fair. Among the antique vehicles was a 1928 Ford Roadster, a 1955 Thunderbird, a 1924 Depot Hack, a 1949 Ford Two Door Sedan, a 1955 Four Door Belair, a 1926 Chrysler, a 1926 Chrysler, a 1926 Plymouth Coupe, a 1938 Dodge Doctor's Coupe, and a 1925 Model T Touring Car which had been used to make a coal hauling run to Norene before being purchased by H. L. Smith. The cars in this exhibit ranged in price from $5,000 to $25,000.
In 1983, The theme was HAVE WE GOT A FAIR FOR YOU. That tradition established the yearly theme selected by the Fair Board. The dates of the 1983 fair were August 29 through September 3. The carnival that year was Golden Empire Shows, owned by Richard Vinson. Goofo the Clown played his calliope while roaming the fairgrounds. No attendance figures are available for this fair. The 1983 fair had the Chicago Knockers, a female mud wrestling group, and there were horse shows, a beef cattle show, dog shows, sheep shows and mule shows. There were Motocross and Three Wheeler races. Midnight Madness was created by the board of directors to entice people who went to the Friday night football games to attend the fair after the football games. If you had a ticket stub from a game in Lebanon, Mt. Juliet or Watertown, you were eligible for discounted ride tickets.
In 1984, the theme was AGRICULTURE PRESENT, PAST AND FUTURE. The 1984 Wilson county Fair was held August 20 through the 25th. The first major award was received by the fair, Most Improved Fair. This was presented at the awards ceremony at the Tennessee Association of Fairs convention in Nashville. A great combination of good weather and special promotions and attractions helped to make the 1984 Wilson county Fair a big success with an attendance of 21,000 up from the 1983 attendance of 15,500. This is the year that all of the Bradford Pear trees were planted up and down the main drive into the fairgrounds.
In 1985, the theme of the Wilson County Fair was A FAIR TO REMEMBER. The fair was held August 19 through 24th. Richard Vinson's' Golden Empire Shows provided the carnival that year. Attendance that year was up again to a total of 22,000 people. Exhibits such as Rabbit, Pigeon and Dove, Wild Bird Educational Exhibits, Youth Home Economics, Sew with Cotton contests, a Baking Show, 4-H Chicken barbeque contest, a sheep show, a Truck and Farm tractor pull, Demolition Derby, Rose Show, Beef Show, Dairy Show, Bicycle Races and many, many other shows took place to make this an outstanding fair
In 1986, the theme was 86 REASONS TO COME TO THE FAIR. "Wilson's Fair tabbed No. 1" read the headline in the Lebanon Democrat. "The Wilson County Fair of August 18-23 has been judged the Champion Fair of 1986 by the Tennessee Association of Fairs. This is truly a big honor which is accompanied by a lot of prestige," said Hale Moss, Fair Board President. The 1986 Wilson County Fair attracted 37,569 individuals. Richard Tinsley provided the carnival that year. The very first Senior Citizens Day was held that year. The fair had over 2,000 competitive entries that year.
In 1987, the theme of the fair was THERE'S A FAIR IN THE AIR. The fair ran August 16 through August 22nd. Participation in almost every category was at an all-time high. The carnival that year was again provided by Richard Tinsley's Amusements. A 1987 Pontiac 6000 was given away. Channel 5's Joe Case televised Talk of the Town during the fair. The 1987 fair continued the traditions set by the success of previous fairs. Most of the events were continued and expanded, new volunteers were attracted and support in the community grew. Most everybody considered the Wilson County Fair a blue ribbon fair, and couldn't wait until next year for the carnival to roll into town again, bringing all the fun, competition, and the excitement back to Lebanon, Tennessee.
In 1988, the theme of the Wilson County Fair was OLD TIME TRADITION. The dates of the fair were August 14 through 20th, and the fair was well on its way to becoming a successful event for the community. Attendance continued to grow with each succeeding fair. This new volunteer spirit climbed with additional members being added to the Fair Board and to the Youth Board. Educational, agricultural and industrial exhibits increased. The midway increased with Richard Tinsley's Amusements and many new food vendors. Much positive attention was given by local media to endeavors of the fair, especially the awards nominations on the state level that put the spotlight on the event in a way that helped to propel the fair to greater attendance. Old time tradition reflected well the tradition of fairs hosting political rallies and speeches of candidates running for office. However, never in the history of Wilson County had a Presidential candidate visited before a national election. Michael Dukakis was the Democratic nominee for President and was opposing Vice President George H. W. Bush.
The arrival of Dukakis at the Wilson County Fair caused an unprecedented flurry of activity for the tiny, but growing event. Mr. Dukakis was scheduled to spend 40 minutes, up to an hour at the fair during the middle of the afternoon. The attendees for that event were Michael and Kitty Dukakis, Governor Ned McWhorter, Senator Jim Sasser, Congressman Bart Gordon and Al Gore.
In 1989, the theme was A PROUD PAST....A PROMISING FUTURE. This fair ran from August 13 through the 19th, with an attendance of 59,015 individuals. This edition of the Wilson County Fair won Tennessee's highest honor in fair competitions for the 1989 Sweepstakes Award. In 1989, the Wilson County Fair beat out Putnam Co., Benton Co., and Carroll Co., for the top state honor. This award was presented to the top fair of the previous four years county fair champions making this the most coveted award that could be received. In order for the fair to compete and to win in the state category, that fair must have lots and lots exhibits and exhibitors. The 1989 fair sent out a plea to the community to bring in their farm crops and vegetables.
Competition returned to the 1989 fair with the Do-Si-Do Square Dancing contest, the local Talent Search contest, and the Rose Show. Community pride in the Ward Ag Center was evident when the Lebanon Jaycees along with the Lebanon Democrat Charity Classic Horse Show purchased and donated a fountain to grace the fair entrance. In addition, the Twin States Iris Society prepared and planted iris bulbs along the fence of the Ward Ag Center. The Trap and Skeet Shoot along with Horseshow Pitching gave participants the opportunity to pit their skills against each other.
In 1990, the theme of the Wilson County Fair was WHERE MEMORIES ARE MADE. All American Shows, owned by Terry and Teresa Portemont provided the midway for the 1990 fair. This carnival met the criteria and standards of the Fair Board, and a relationship was born that lasted for over a decade. The Portemonts were professional business people who endeavored to seek a working relationship with the Fair Board and the community that they served. The Portemonts, Johnny and Marilyn, Terry and Teresa, hosted a dinner for the Executive Committee and their wives during the fair. This caused quite a sensation among the officers because no carnival group had ever before had acknowledged that they wanted any type of social interaction. Then , the Portemont family and All American Shows became an integral part of the Wilson County Fair and helped to grow the attendance by providing good, clean, safe rides during the many years that they played the Wilson County Fair, until they ceased operations in 2007. Exciting events that expanded from the previous year included the Antique Tractor Pull, Three and Four Wheeler Races, and the Demolition Derby. Fair officials brought in some exciting and new special attractions. The Flying Valentines was a troupe of trapeze artists who performed each night, while Jim and the All Animal Band was a big hit with young and old alike.
This year, 1990, the spotlight on people honored the Korean War Veterans with an opening ceremony which recognized veterans. A color guard and a 21 cannon salute honored veterans, and Major General Carl Wallace delivered a speech. All Veterans and their spouses were admitted to the fair for free on this day. Approximately 1,280 Wilson Countians served in the Korean War. Eight died in action, one was taken prisoner, and four others were killed in accidents while in service. The Tennessee Korean War Memorial Association sought donations for a memorial and also showed film footage from the war in their educational booth.
In 1991, the theme of the fair was PEACE, PATRIOTISM AND PROSPERITY. The dates of the fair were August 17 through 24th. Again, the Wilson County Fair captured the prestigious title of Tennessee's Champion Fair. The attendance figures topped out at an amazing 80,511 individuals. The carnival, All American Shows brought a great show with new rides, including the Super Loop. The fair kicked off the week- long activities with a Celebrity Goat Milking Contest between County Sheriff Terry Ashe, State Senator Bob Rochelle, State Representative Joe Bell, County Executive Don Simpson and Lebanon Mayor Bobby Jewell. The event was scheduled to highlight a fair first--an ADGA sanctioned dairy goat show. The Showboat Puppet Show and WAZAT the Clown were also new.
Other first time events included a Radio Controlled Off Road Jamboree which featured controlled car and truck races on a dirt track. An exciting first time event for the 4-H and FFA members was the Greased Pig contest. Grounds improvements included lighted parking, new ticket booths, a first aid station, a new permanent concession stand, an archway over the entrance, and a new poultry barn were added. Many people came for the animals which included rabbits, goats, horses, pigs, sheep, dairy and beef cattle, jacks, jennets, draft horses and dogs in various shows, competitions and events. The newest and most publicized activity for the 1991 fair was the dedication of Fiddler's Grove. It is a small village nestled in a grove of trees which depicted a way of life of the early settlers of Wilson County. The village was composed of buildings, equipment, furniture, and many other items, donated by Wilson County residents who wanted to share their heritage with visitors to the fair. Fiddler's Grove was so named by G. Frank Burns, a Wilson County history professor who taught at Cumberland University. The dedication for Fiddlers Grove Historical Village by Wilson County Promotions was held on Tuesday, August 20, 1991 at 6:30 p.m. at the James E. Ward Agricultural Center. Entertainment was provided by students from Tucker's Crossroads School directed by Tony Cook. A special tank you was given to Carlton and Geneva Thomas for their endless work and dedication to Fiddler's Grove. For the opening of the Village, a post office, bank and blacksmith shop were made ready for the fair. In addition, three log houses with 100 year old timbers were relocated to the grounds. The Village had seven buildings with others slated for a later arrival.
In 1992, the theme of the Wilson County Fair was CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES. This was selected as a continuation of the county wide theme, "Celebration of the Wilson County Lifestyle". The weekly attendance of 93,770 individuals helped the fair to bring home the most coveted award in the state, Champion of Champions! Fair week started on August 15 and ran through August 22nd, 1992. The fair started on a strong note in 1992 with the publicity and growing community pride of the award-winning 1991 Champion Fair. With Fiddler's Grove Historical Village unveiled during the fair of the previous year, the Grove continued to grow with the completion of the jail. A church and school were planned additions to the 1992 fair. Also in the Grove, the Stringtown Store was completed with Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores donating $4,000 toward the building. A resolution was sent to the county commission naming the road around Fiddler's Grove in honor of Carlton and Geneva Thomas who had donated so much time to the Fiddler's Grove project. Events during the fair included mule races, a nightly volleyball tournament, battery powered toy race, Ronald McDonald magic Show, racing pigs and ducks, the World's Largest Steer Big Blu, and a children's train ride. All American Shows brought in three new rides, the Gondola Wheel, the Wipeout and the Majestic Scooter. The Pedal Push Tractor Pull enthralled the children as the adults looked on. The Demolition Derby continued to draw large crowds. An increase in entrances and lighted parking facilities, new events, a new permanent building, and more entertainment all combined to create one of the best fairs in the history of Wilson County Promotions.
In 1993, the theme of the Wilson County Fair was VIEW FROM THE TOP. The dates for the 1993 fair were August 16 through 21st. The theme, A VIEW FROM THE TOP was in tribute to the 100th year anniversary of the Ferris Wheel and proclaimed to the community the coveted award received for the 1992 Champion of Champions Fair. Little did anyone realize at the time that the 1993 Fair would also win that coveted title once again. The Wilson County Fair was the only fair to win the award in back to back years.
The Ferris Wheel was introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The record breaking attendance for the Wilson County Fair that year was 108,348 individuals! Competition was stiff again that year with 3,015 entries in everything from baking to photography to farm crops. Several events and competitions for children included the popular School Day events on Saturday, the Ride Toy Race and Pedal Push Race and a coloring contest that was a new event that year. The Ronald McDonald Magic Show and McGruff the Crime Dog puppet sponsored by the Wilson County Sheriff's Office were two events that entertained the younger set. A couple was married on the Ferris Wheel with their pastor, while the Wheel was some 80 feet up in the air. All American Shows brought in three new rides to the Midway. The centerpiece of the Midway in 1993 was the amazing new whirly-gig, the Kamikaze. For children, the Berry Go Round was a ride in a wildly spinning strawberry. The Century Wheel was a brand new single axle wheel which was larger than any in the world. Senior citizens were given free rides on this giant Ferris Wheel.
In 1994, the theme of the fair was A FAMILY A-FAIR. The fair ran from August 15 through August 20th. A new attendance record was set when 108,934 individuals attended the fair. This fair was 2nd runner up for the State Champion for Tennessee after having won the Champion of Champions in 1992 and 1993. What was it that made this fair a contender for the Tennessee Champion Fair? Continuity on the Fair Board, new additions to the Fair Board and to the Youth Board must be considered contributing factors. There was continuity as well with many of the educational exhibits and shows held at the fair. Among these were the Goat Show, Senior Citizens Picnic, the Car and Cash Give-a-Way, the Antique Tractor Pull , the Trap and Skeet Shoot and Fiddle Competition. However, many new features and entertainment acts were added to the award-winning fair as officials continued to seek to make each fair better than the one the year before. All American Shows, owned by Terry and Teresa Portemont, provided the midway.
Tops among some of the new events were "Remember the Maneuvers" with Lt. Col. (retired) Jim Henderson. He spoke on Monday night in Fiddlers Grove of a time when Wilson County and Middle Tennessee were transformed into a huge military scene. Many people who had served their country during World War II and many who were children during this time were treated to interesting facts about this time and era. Lt. Col. Henderson was a military veteran who was serving as Executive Director of the Tennessee World War II Maneuvers Commission.
New in Fiddlers Grove in 1994 were the Historical Walking Tours of Fiddlers Grove. Fair officials asked the Chapel Playhouse theater group to create tours through the Grove during the fair. Members of the group took on the identities of persons from Lebanon's past, including Sam Houston, Dr. J.E. Fisher and others. While in costume and at 15-minute intervals, three characters were portrayed each night during the entire fair.
The most controversial new event at the 1994 Wilson County Fair was the Diving Mules. This entertainment venue was billed as the "world's only diving mules." During each of the three shows nightly, two mules, a pony and a dog were led to the plywood walkway. The walkway ended on a sloping edge to the six foot deep pool 30 feet below. The animals trotted up to the top without any prodding from their handler. The mules moved to the edge of the platform, extended their hooves until they fell forward with a slight spring from their rear feet. While their plunge was not accomplished with Olympic grace, the creatures emerged from the tank, furiously shaking off water and looking for a reward from their handler," stated Leon Alligood of the Nashville Banner.
The controversy arose when a woman, an animal welfare advocate and the president of the Wilson County Humane Association, questioned how the animals were trained to do something that was obviously unnatural to them. Meetings with this woman and members of the Fair Board along with local veterinarians found the mules to be well treated with no scars and they were not coerced to jump into the water from the 30 foot high platform. Tim Rivers, the trainer, said that he had heard complaints while traveling with his show before. He stated that "he did not make the mules do anything that they don't want to do. What we do is find one that likes water and start them out with low dives. I bet that we could go up to 60 feet and they would still do it because they like to."
The negative publicity was a great learning experience for Wilson County Fair officials. The officers handled the whole incident in a professional manner by meeting with all of those concerned. However, the negative publicity proved to be very valuable for the event because more people than ever poured through the gates each night to view the famous diving mule act. One funny story in an otherwise serious situation arose when Hale Moss, Nelson Steed, the woman, and Kevin Brumett met to discuss the 1994 Mule Diving act. Seeing that the woman was very concerned about the animals and trying to lighten the mood, Nelson Steed asked her, "Next year, we have another event featuring animals. How do you feel about monkeys being shot out of a cannon?".
In 1995, the theme was NINE DAYS OF INCREDIBLE EXCITEMENT. This theme reflected the board's desire to expand the fair to nine days, running from August 18 through August 26th. With a new attendance record of 127,052 individuals, the extended time frame helped to control the crowded buildings and parking, and it gave officials rain insurance and fairgoers ample time to explore all that the fair had to offer. The behind the scenes work accomplished by over 200 volunteers was evidenced by the outstanding number of excellent exhibits, the variety of events including pageants and competitions, the smooth manner in which the fair was managed and the cleanliness of the grounds. The increase in attendance was 18% over 1994. In addition, over $42,742 was paid out in premiums to exhibitors.
Several nights were named to honor individual segments within the community. Ladies Night, Retailers Night, Country Western Night, 50's Night, Neighbors Night and Merchants Night were set aside to recognize these friends from all over the county. Country Western Night featured several competitions including a Dance Marathon for two step couples, prizes for Best Western Wear, Best Looking Boots, Best Hat, Worst Boots, Best Belt Buckle and Worst Belt Buckle. Popular 50's Night was sponsored by the Nashville BeBop Club and they gave prizes for the Best 50's costume, Hula Hoop, Best Dance Couple and a Twist Contest. Merchant's Night was sponsored by the Lebanon/Wilson County Chamber of Commerce and they gave a country ham, watches, gift baskets, a savings bond, an office chair and many other prizes from retailers to those who brought their merchants' receipts and who dropped them off in a barrel for a drawing. Ladies Night honored women who were 18 years and older with $1.00 off of admission and free carnival rides in addition to gifts and prizes. Merchant's Night gave 605 fairgoers $1.00 off of admission.
Fiddlers Grove was a magical place in 1995 to while away your cares on the bales of hay behind the country store while listening to the 4th Annual Fiddling Contest on the Back Porch Stage.
Fairgoers love events with excitement and the 1995 Wilson County Fair pleased them all with its great lineup of activities. Returning were the World Champion Lumberjacks who had appeared on ABC's Wide World of Sports prior to touring the country's fair circuit.
In 1995, the Wilson County Fair paid tribute and named its first Old Timer at the fair. Mrs. Eddie Clay of Lebanon was honored with this award. The main purpose of the award was to honor a person who had shown love for their family and fellow man, and a patriotic devotion to the community. Mrs. Clay, aged 97 years, recalled that county fairs were avenues of entertainment during her dating years. Girls always brought new outfits to wear to the fair. She enjoyed the cattle and horse shows since she was a "country girl". The midway rides like the Ferris Wheel and the Roller Coaster were exciting to her, but "scared her to death". The midway that year was provided by Terry and Teresa Portemont and All American Shows.
In 1996, the theme of the fair was CELEBRATE TENNESSEE TREASURES. The fair dates were August 16 through 24th. The attendance that year was 139,668! The year 1996 brought a great celebration to the State of Tennessee. The state was formed in 1796, therefore statewide festivities were held across Tennessee to honor this milestone in state history.
Several new events debuted at the fair this year including a new fair mascot--"Hoppy" the Fair Frog. Also new in 1996 were a Wild West Stunt Show, the Death Defying Direnzo, Livestock Herding Demonstrations, a Hot Air Balloon, Helicopter Rides and "Wilson" a baby deer who was born at the petting zoo on Thursday night during the fair. (In 1997, Wilson was given a birthday cake with one candle in the center of it!).
Monday was declared red, white and blue day by Fair officials, hoping to see a sea of these colors worn by fairgoers. Persons wearing all three colors received $1.00 off the $10.00 ride for one price tickets.
An entertainment event retained by Fair officials was taken to new heights during this year's fair. "The Death Defying Direnzo", also known as "The Towering Inferno" was the most talked about event of this year. Direnzo would climb a 120 foot tower. Standing at the top, with all eyes looking up to him, the would proceed to set himself on fire and would plunge at speeds up to 120 miles per hour while he was engulfed in flames. His performances were daily at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
All American Shows, owned by Terry and Teresa Portemont, brought a new attraction to the fair called "Virtual Reality". This gave fairgoers nine different video adventures accompanied by real twists, turns and gyrations. One could ride with Santa, another from a jet fighter aircraft, or another could leap into the Bermuda Triangle. Always a big hit at the fair were the Kiddie Rides, including the Merry-Go-Round.
Monday was Senior Day at the fair. Seniors aged 62 and above entered the fair for half price- $2.00 Many seniors dressed in vintage outfits for the very first Senior Citizens Old Timey Costume Contest. The man and woman who were judged to be in the best old fashioned costume would each receive $25.00. In addition, a talent contest for seniors was held on the Back Porch Stage in Fiddlers Grove. A free picnic was also held in the Grove.
In 1996, the Wilson County Fair Old Timer was Herschel Ligon.
In 1997, the theme of the fair was HAPPY DAYS. The dates of the fair were August 15 through 23rd. The fair opened its gates for its annual nine day run, ending with attendance figures of 187,840! HAPPY DAYS attendance figures exceeded the expected crowd by over 47,000, even with rain falling on the Car Give-A-Way night. License plates were seen and recorded from 27 Tennessee counties out in the parking lots. HAPPY DAYS brought to the Fair the much coveted title of State Champion Fair for 1997. Before the fair began, County Executive Val Kelley announced that a resolution calling for the purchase of just over 67 acres of land adjacent to the Ward Agricultural Center for $2,000,000.00 had received the approval of the Ag Center Management Committee and the Financial Management Committee. In addition to other improvements, a new sign was placed by the main entrance with space to advertise events.
A new building to house school exhibits was constructed near Fiddlers Grove. The school exhibits showcased entries from each school in Wilson County, the Lebanon Special School District, private schools and home schools. In an attempt to identify all the buildings at the Ward Agricultural Center, each building was labeled with a large letter over the entrance to the building. The letter on the new school building was "F" until someone took noticed and changed the letter on it. All American Shows, owned by Terry and Teresa Portemont, provided the midway that year.
Several new events made this year's fair bigger and better. Go-cart races, BBQ Cook-off, Smoke on the Mountain, the Lumberjack Show, the Mighty Men, and performances by country music artist John Conlee were the events at the for in 1997. In addition, there were about 165 food and merchandise vendors, more than 3,000 head of livestock, including swing, goats, sheep and cattle. Six entertainment stages featured musicians, dancers, singers and other performers.
The world's largest tractor replica was 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. The tractor traveled to events all over the country, but this was the first time this exhibit had been in Tennessee.
The fair attracted the attention of popular women's magazine, FAMILY CIRCLE. The magazine sent a food writer and a photographer to cover the Martha White Baking Contest. Jo Smith, chair of the event, was told that the Wilson County Fair was one of only six in the nation to be selected for coverage. FAMILY CIRCLE was interested in the first place winners in the pie division. Some of the winning recipes were used in the story as well as in interviews of the winners.
The Amazin' Blazin' Barbeque Cook-off competition was a new event to the fair in 1997. This event was sponsored by the Wilson County Livestock Association. Where else but at the Wilson County Fair can you select from hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, popcorn, French fries, cotton candy and corn on the cob? However, the barbeque at the barbeque cook-off was not for sale--it was strictly for the judges. The contest was open to amateur individuals, teams and professionals who competed in any or in all of the three categories---beef, pork and other meat products. Participants furnished their own cooking supplies, equipment and food. As a special feature, authentic chuck wagon cooking was demonstrated throughout the day.
An entirely new form of entertainment was available at this year's fair. The Chapel Playhouse Community Theater performed "Smoke on the Mountain" in the Melrose Church in Fiddlers Grove. The play was a gospel musical comedy with 27 standard bluegrass gospel songs. There was no additional charge to attend the play which was intended to promote the community theater as well as offer the fairgoers something just a little different.
The Old Timer of the 1997 fair was Fred "Buddy" Singleton, the third recipient of this award.
Governor Don Sundquist was the speaker for the Wilson County Century Farm Luncheon. He made frequent references to those present representing a working farm for over 100 years. Governor Sundquist focused on the importance of agriculture in Tennessee.
In 1998, the theme of the fair was KICK UP YOUR HEELS. The 1998 Wilson County Fair celebrated the new and the old while attracting the attendance of 224,825 individuals. The fun at the fair involved hundreds of people who participated and who competed in events, demonstrations, shows and exhibits. Antique Tractor Pull, Antique Car Show, Go Cart Races and literally hundreds of exhibits.
Many talent events were scheduled for the 1998 fair. The True Value Country Showdown State Finals with Ricochet in performance was featured on opening night. Ricochet had been named Favorite New Group and Group of the Year in 1997 by Country Weekly and Radio and Records. The musical trio, Us, Two and Him performed at the Senior Picnic while the Fiddlers Grove Bluegrass Competition drew large crowds at the Back Porch Stage. The Cedar City Clogging Contest gave $500.00 for the "top clog" while the Amateur Talent Show awarded $150.00 in two categories as the grand prize.
Television personality and actor Peter Breck appeared at various events during the fair. Breck was best known for portraying "Nick Barkley" on the television series THE BIG VALLEY. He had also acted on other programs including MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, HAWAII 5-0, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, BONANZA and PERRY MASON.
Animals of various shapes and sizes have always been a part of the fairs across this country. In the year 1998, had some new animals that were seen on the grounds in addition to the traditional cows, sheep and mules. Boer Goats made their debut at the 1998 Wilson County Fair in the very first Boer Goat Show that was sanctioned by the national Boer Goat Association. This was a first in Tennessee. These Boer goats are special in that they are raised primarily for their low fat meat.
A Tennessee State Beefalo show was held on Friday night.
Several exotic creatures not usually found in Wilson County were seen on the grounds in the year 1998. The Safari Animal Petting Zoo provided children of all ages the opportunity of viewing and touching the giraffes, zebras, antelopes, llamas and other animals up close.
The Reptile Show, hosted by Ernie Lanier featured "Colossus", the World's largest python, boa constrictors and an extremely rare albino python. "Colossus", who was 13 years old, weighed in at 400 pounds and was 20 feet long. "Colossus" was a very big eater. One meal might consist of several 8 pound rabbits or even a 52 pound pig.
We had dog shows, cat shows, we had sheep dog trials which were US-BCHA sanctioned, showing Border Collies competing as they herded sheep for prizes and national qualifying points. The Poultry Show at the 1998 fair was a huge success with many exhibits, exhibitors, fair workers and the public eagerly waiting to see the beautiful birds on display.
The Road Island Redhead contest matched the woman, the man or child whose hair was closer in color to a Rhode Island Red Rooster. The 1998 winner was Elizabeth McDonald whose hair was a perfect match to the rooster.
The midway that year was provided by All American Shows, owned by Terry and Teresa Portemont. Many stories of human interest flourished at the 1998 fair. The opening day of the fair, August 14th, was named Jimmy Floyd Day in honor of Jimmy Floyd who was a past member of the Wilson County Fair Board. Jimmy was also very instrumental in helping the early fair secure a carnival as well as advertising to the fair board about the fair business. Jimmy was the son of J.D. and Ann Floyd, who were involved in Floyd and Baxter, the owners of Cumberland Valley Shows. In addition to this, all the livestock shows were dedicated to the memory of William Dean Thompson. He was a local dairy farmer from the Baird's Mill community, a member of the Wilson County Fair Board, and he helped to promote the livestock shows held at the fair. A rotating plaque was established in his memory.
The 1998 Old Timer Award was given to Mr. Chester Bell. Mr. Bell, 96 years old, was given the award for his fine example of dedication to his neighbors and to his community.
In 1999, the theme of the Wilson County Fair was COMMEMORATE, CELEBRATE & COMMUNICATE. T date of the 1999 fair were August 13 through August 21st. The attendance that year was 257,495 individuals.
This year's fair was a part of the Bicentennial Celebration for Wilson County. As part of remembering the past, the fair revived a popular feature event form the early 1940's Wilson County Fair. The Lamb Festival included a parade and special lamb classes. At one time in history, Wilson County was known and was recognized as the sheep capitol of Tennessee. Several Bo Peeps and Queens were present for the week's spotlight on the Lamb Festival history. Among these ladies were Virginia Hale, Bo Peep; Wylene Pilpot Rogers, Lamb Queen, 1941; Mary Elizabeth Scheurman Goodner, Bo Peep; and Helen Johnson Hays, Queen of the Kiddie parade, 1941. After the parade, the queens, attendants and Bo Peeps were invited to a reception at the fair.
A plaque for Distinguished Service was presented to the Wilson County Fair by the Tennessee Sheep Producers Association for promotion of the sheep industry in Tennessee. More than 400 head of sheep were shown at the fair making the one-day show larger than any other exhibits in the state of Tennessee.
The very first highlight and official opening of the fair was a Cattle Drive, which recreated the famous cattle drive of 1896. Lebanon City officials were concerned about the shutting down of a main thoroughfare through Lebanon and they almost nullified the event. Fair official James Spears worked with the Police and the Mayor to pursue an alternate route which allowed the event to take place. After obtaining the correct permit, The City of Lebanon allowed the second historic cattle drive to proceed. A herd of 30 Longhorn cattle were driven from City Hall over to West Main Street. The Cattle Drive proceeded up West Main Street to the Public Square, and then they went up East Main Street. The cattle and the cowboys traveled on Tennessee Boulevard to the fairgrounds. James Spears was officially recognized by the Wilson county Fair Board for his organization of the Cattle Drive.
In a special salute to personal history, Rev. Larry Locke presided over a ceremony in the Melrose Church in which 10 couples who had been married for 50 years or longer repeated their wedding vows.
The summer reading program reached 3,000 children. As a reward, children who reached reading goals during the summer public library programs received a ribbon and free gate admission to the fair and a free ride coupon from Terry and Teresa Portemonts' All American Shows.
Mr. John Wilson Clemmons was named the fifth recipient of the Old Timer Award in 1999. Mary Singleton, who was the coordinator of the award, found Mr. Clemmons to be the oldest living veteran of World War II living in Wilson County.
The State of Tennessee introduced the public to the Tennessee farmer through their Pick Tennessee Products promotion.
United States Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. made a campaign stop at the Wilson County Fair as he pondered a bid for the United States Senate against incumbent Senator Bill Frist. At age 29, Ford was the youngest member of the United States Congress.
The State of Tennessee introduced the public to the Tennessee farmer through their Pick Tennessee Products promotion. The program encouraged consumers to choose homegrown and locally processed food products. The Wilson County Fair was one of only nine fairs awarded a grant to showcase this program to the fair going public. "County agricultural fairs are still an important expression of community spirit across the state. If you want to find any county's opinion leaders, its best and most concerned citizens, the folks who make an impact for good in a community, you don't have to look any farther than the county's list of fair board members".
As a finale, the title of 1999 State Champion Fair went to the Wilson County Fair!