WHITE COUNTY — For most folks, autumn brings falling leaves, flying footballs and a relief from the dog days of summer. In White County, though, fall also means fair time, and it’s been that way for 80 years.
“There’s White County, and then there’s the rest,” Wendell “Buddy” Phillips said when reminiscing about the evolution of the White County Fair from its humble beginnings to the much anticipated attraction it is today.
When it comes to county fairs, Phillips is a respected authority, having visited all 75 fairs in Arkansas and penned a brief history of the White County Fair. He began exhibiting when he was a youngster and served on the White County Fair Board for 45 years before retiring in 2010. He continues his involvement with the fair as an emeritus board member.
“For me, the fair is a way of life,” he said.
The first White County Fair was held in Judsonia in 1883 and remained there for three years. Back then, the fair was held in the spring in conjunction with the harvest of the county’s hugely successful agricultural crop — strawberries.
Like the rest of the nation, the fair fell on hard times and was held “sporadically” through the years of the Great Depression. Since 1935, however, the fair has been an annual event, albeit one far removed from the thrill rides and demolition derby that have become popular attractions for modern fairgoers.
“The fair was a place where people would bring their crops to be compared to others’,” Phillips said of the event’s early years. “White County is such a diversified county with crops and cattle, and it takes all that to make a successful fair.”
The fair moved to Searcy in the early 1930s at a location off what is now Beebe Capps Expressway. The fair was held in tents and a warehouse, where exhibitors included Home Demonstration Clubs and local businesses. Some livestock were also shown. In the early 1940s, the fair moved again, to north of Moore Street in Searcy near Searcy Lion Stadium. Among the buildings used was the National Youth Administration building, a President Franklin D. Roosevelt program where youth could learn a trade, Phillips said.
When Birdseye Foods bought the building in 1951, the fair was held entirely in tents. All events were free and open to the public. Entertainment included footballs games between Searcy and Morris School and horse racing.
“They would pull the plow horses out of the field and bring them to the races,” Phillips said. In later years, Dr. Porter Rodgers Sr. began bringing his regal Tennessee walking horses to the fair.
In 1954, the White County Fair moved to its present location on Davis Drive at what was once known as the “poor farm.” Three wood-frame livestock buildings were constructed, and an exhibits building was erected in 1956, along with a grandstand that served as seating for entertainment. A pavilion honoring the Searcy Young Businessmen’s Club, a former sponsor of the fair, still stands near the entrance to the carnival grounds.
White County’s first fair queen contest was held in 1957, with Sue Dean Ekdahl crowned as the winner. Pam Walker, chairwoman of the fair queen contest, said plans for this year’s event include honoring former fair queens.
“We have reached out to the past fair queens to invite them back to ride in the parade and attend a reception, where they can visit with this year’s contestants,” Walker said. “I think it will be great for the girls to talk to the former queens and see how things have changed.”
The White County Fair Parade is another long-standing tradition in the area. In addition to giving the community a first look at the year’s fair-queen contestants, the parade features high school bands, floats and vehicles.
“Searcy is a parade town,” Phillips said. “The parade used to be held on Monday afternoon, and it would signal the start of the fair.” In 2013, the time of the parade was moved to 11 a.m. Saturday, which has made it easier for those who participate in and watch the event. That year also marked the addition of an extra weekend to the White County Fair schedule and the move of the Junior Market Livestock Auction to noon on Friday of the fair.
Keeping an eye open for new attractions while staying true to old favorites is a way that the White County Fair has remained popular over the years, Phillips said. He pointed out that the carnival is always a large source of revenue for the event.
“Bright lights make a carnival,” he said. “We use the Happy Days Carnival out of Marion because they have the brightest lights and modern rides,” he said.
In 1960, Senior Citizen Day at the fair began. That year, an estimated 200 people attended the event. That number has grown to approximately 1,500 at last count. On Thursday of fair week, seniors are treated to free admission, a meal, entertainment and health checks. The day is sponsored by Unity Health, formerly White County Medical Center.
Another fair attraction, the rodeo arena, was built at the White County Fairgrounds as an open-air facility in 1966. Hailed by Phillips as “one of the best, if not the best, rodeo arenas in Arkansas,” it is now a covered area where rodeos and horse shows are held throughout the year.
Saturday night at the White County Fair has become known as Demolition Derby Night. Patrons line the streets for blocks to get into the fairgrounds to watch junk cars slam into each other and send the fair out with a bang.
This year’s fair will feature several other attractions for automotive enthusiasts, including monster trucks, motocross and ATV events; an antique tractor pull; and a Power Wheels Derby for kids ages 4 to 10, said Dusty Betts, who is in charge of automotive entertainment for the White County Fair.
Whether fairgoers look forward to any of these attractions, or just a nighttime stroll through the carnival lights or a place to connect with friends, the White County fair continues to provide a sense of community for county residents.
The fair will begin Saturday and run through Sept. 19. For a full schedule of events, visit whitecountyfairgrounds.org or the fair’s Facebook page.