Tail of the Weak 3.44
Updated: Jan 25
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
Much like springtime rejuvenates the soul, the first crisp, cool days of Fall does the same after a long, hot Southern summer. As far back as I can remember, those first crisp, cool days always moved into Waycross at the same time the fair came to town.
The 1st Annual Dixie Fair was held October 18-23, 1948, out at the Waycross and Ware County Airport. The event offered 10 big rides—Merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, Whirlwind, Caterpillar, and Flying Scooter among them—and over 30 shows and concessions, courtesy of Mad Cody Fleming, renowned carnival operator who spent his winters in Hickox, Georgia, raising cattle and dabbling in politics, religion, and farming.
Country crooner, Eddy Arnold, was the musical attraction at the 3rd Annual Dixie Fair in 1950. Nicknamed 'The Tennessee Plowboy'—he grew up on a farm near Henderson—Arnold brought with him to Waycross 10 of his prized, purebred Angus bulls and exhibited them at the fair.
Evidently, he had a big thing for cattle—his signature song was “The Cattle Call”, written by Tex Owens and recorded twice by Arnold, in 1944 and 1955, the latter spending 26 weeks on the country charts, peaking at number one for two weeks.
The Exchange Club sponsored Nashville's Roy Acuff at 1951's annual event, which had moved from the airport to Memorial Stadium, built in 1949. Losing momentum by 1952, the Dixie Fair moved again to the City Auditorium and offered no midway and no rides—only 4-H, FFA, and FHA exhibits, Women's Club Antique Show, and Garden Club Flower Show.
As exciting as it must've been watching a camelia bloom, there was still the ever-popular Okefenokee Swamp Park exhibit, in which a brave employee—probably with the last name of Strickland, Cox, or Thrift—milked poisonous snakes to the delight of the disenchanted youngsters who kept demanding, “How come they ain't no Flyin' Scooter?” I could find no record of a fair in Waycross during 1953, the year of my birth.
The Exchange Club took over the reins for good 64 years ago and on October 10, 1954, the 1st Annual Okefenokee Agricultural Fair debuted behind the Gold Leaf Tobacco Warehouse, located next to the train tracks on Genoa Street, just behind a young Wayne Scarborough's home.
There, the event lived and breathed until the 21st of October, 1963, when it opened with a grand display of fireworks at its present Knight Avenue location, home to my earliest fair memories.
Boy, what memories! The smells alone were singularly magnificent—from fresh popped popcorn and foot-long slaw dogs to piles of sawdust and piles of livestock manure. Add to that the visual explosion of multi-colored lights and hand-painted freak show posters—the sounds of calliope-driven merry-go-rounds, of screaming fairgoers twisting, spinning, and whirling on gravity-defying rides, and of relentless hustlers fast-pitching their game booths to anyone with money to spend—and by the end of the night, we were spent out and tired, but mind-numbingly satisfied.
Mama's brothers, Uncle Bud and Uncle Vance, were pretty handy at the fair booths, as evidenced by the brightly-colored, stuffed Teddy bears that used to adorn Grandma Carter's chenille bedspreads, sitting upright between the pillows with unblinking eyes and ribbons tied round their necks.
My earliest memory of the fair booths was the safe and simple-to-win Pick up Ducks, guaranteed to send you home with, at the least, a set of Chinese handcuffs. Those sharp-talking carnies with their games of chance were always a step ahead of me; and, I would usually retreat in a walk of shame staring at the ground in front of me—which led me, one lucky year, to spy old Abe Lincoln peeking up from a five dollar bill, barely visible under a layer of sawdust.
As I grew older, the fair rides that I spent my money on were faster and ultimately, more nauseating. Although I never lost any previously-eaten fair food, I'm sure I lost plenty of pocket change while suspended upside down on the Bullet or Zipper—those clever carnies.
One of my favorites from 1964 was a pink, circular ride called The Roundup, where you would walk onto the flat disc and stand in one of the many individual stalls lining the outer edge. The ride would begin spinning slowly and after working up a nice head of centrifugal force, it tilted upright to a 70 degrees angle, leaving me to ponder my existence, being held in by the slimmest of chains.
The further you strolled down the midway, the more intense were the rides. There too—at the back end of the fairgrounds lay the teenage rite of passage—the hoochie-cootchie tent. For a few years, I wondered about the place where long lines of men would file in and out. My older cousins used to snicker knowingly whenever its name was uttered—which only fueled my interest.
Finally—and fortunately for me because it was banned the following year—I gained entry into the steamy, smoke-filled, dim-litted harem. Too many years have passed by for me to recall what her stage name was or what she looked like; but, that woman lived up to all my teenage expectations. She was quite agile; and, I never looked at a ping pong ball the same after that experience.
Years later, I was pleased to share the excitement of the fair with my first-born daughter, Megan. I loved seeing her toothless grin and watching the wonder and amazement in her little brown eyes. When she was about four, she boldly went into the Kiddie Fun House—filled with a slow-rolling, barrel-shaped tube, some soft, dangling cylinders, and a short climb up a rope ladder.
She made it ceremoniously to the top level, where a four-foot slide back down ended in a pool of colorful, plastic balls with an exit to the left. From her vantage point atop the slide, all she could see was a wall behind the ball pit with no way out. “It's a trap! It's a trap!”, she cried, tears streaming down her face. Heading into the Kiddie Fun House to rescue my little girl, I found the obstacles much more difficult to maneuver than she did—and I didn't cry as much when I got to the top.
Over the past 21 years, I've been putting on a couple of annual music festivals at the old Okefenokee Fairground—Swamptown Getdown Music and Arts Festival and the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival—and every time I set foot on the grass, the memories of fairs past come flooding back.
As I walk through the 4-H building to turn the outside electrical outlets on, I think back to those Tuesday nights in 1967 when our Boy Scout Troop 320 held its weekly meetings there within the same walls.
As we decorate the music stage with curtains and banners, I recall the many times my old rock and roll band, Rhythm Oil, would entertain the fair audiences, seated cozily on rows and rows of hay bales, beneath the backdrop of a spinning Ferris wheel and only a candy apple-throw from the annoying pig races.
As I ride down the midway in my donated Whitaker's golf cart to check on the festival RV campers, I can still hear the whiz-bang-hum of the breathtaking rides that left a young boy amused and excited so many years ago.
Then, out of nowhere, I run over a ping pong ball.
American Spirit: Uncle Dave and The Younguns Download or Buy
Waycross Journal-Herald newspaper archives
Okefenokee Regional Library. Waycross Journal-Herald microfilm archives
Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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