Cabarrus County Fair holds memories, magic

The twinkling lights. The thrilled screams. The sticky candy apples.

It's been a shared experience for generations of Cabarrus County residents every September for more than half a century.

"It's like a little bit of magic for just a night," said Clarence Horton of Kannapolis.

The Cabarrus County Fair opened Friday and will make its annual run through Saturday.

Although today's fair-goers know the fair for its twirling rides and fried delicacies, the fair has a history tied to the county's agricultural roots that goes back as far as the 1800s.

Horton, 70, grew up in Kannapolis and remembers attending the fair as a teenager. But recently, the retired judge, who still serves as an emergency judge on the N.C. Superior Court, began researching the history of the county fair.

He shared his research in an episode of "Historical Moments," a program presented by Historic Cabarrus Inc. and Cabarrus County on the county's television channel, Channel 22.

What he found was that the county fair's origins began just before the Civil War.

The 19th century saw a movement toward improving agricultural methods, which inspired the first state fair in Raleigh in 1853. The fair was meant as a means to exhibit agricultural products and teach people about new methods, said Horton.

In the 1850s, a group in Cabarrus County promoted the fair, but then the Civil War erupted in 1861, putting a hold on any fair plans.

It wasn't until the 1870s that agricultural fairs were held in Cabarrus County.

One was held near Poplar Tent Presbyterian Church in Concord, and the other was held at St. John's Lutheran Church near Mount Pleasant.

In the late 1880s, the two fairs combined to form the Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Association, which constructed fairgrounds near downtown Concord in an area bordered by Union Street, Spring Street, Blume Avenue and Tribune Avenue.

Michael Eury, executive director of the Historic Cabarrus Association and curator of the Concord Museum, said these fairgrounds were home to baking and agricultural exhibits as well as horse races and jousting contests in which participants would spear suspended wooden rings while riding horseback.

Tournament Drive near downtown Concord was named for those jousting games, said Horton.

That fair closed in the 1890s and wasn't reorganized until 1923, when the fair moved near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Cabarrus Avenue in Concord, where horse races drew huge crowds, said Horton.

But the fair closed again after the 1934 season, suffering from a lack of funding brought on by the Great Depression.

It wasn't until 1953 that the county fair resumed and became the fair similar to the one county residents know today.

Horton was 13 years old when the fair opened in 1953.

He remembers the rides - the first ferris wheel he'd probably ever seen, he said - and the games and food.

And as he got older, the fair became the popular place to go on dates.

There was just something magical about the fair, he said.

And today, children's reactions to the lights and sounds are the same as they were on opening day in 1953, he said.

"You still see their eyes light up," said Horton.

Former Concord Mayor Harold McEachern was in his 20s when the fair opened in 1953.

"I would ride anything I could until my money ran out," said McEachern, who will be 82 years old Saturday.

He vividly remembers riding the ferris wheel.

"I could see the Charlotte lights," he said. "It was like being on an airplane."

He recalled a game called "Six Cats" in which participants tried to knock over cat figurines lined up in rows with three balls.

"I thought, 'Boy, I could do that,'" he said. "Little did I know, it was pretty hard."

For years, McEachern was a regular at the fair, where he later displayed products from his electronic business.

In the 1960s, he joined the fair board, and beginning in 1990, he worked as fair manager for 11 years.

He also served as the 1995-1996 president of the N.C. Fair Association.

Up until eight years ago, the fair was planned and financed by an independent fair board.

But in 2002, the fair-became a county operation, becoming one of the few government-run fairs in the state. That same year, the fair moved to its current location at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center.

Today, McEachern still serves on the fair advisory committee. He recently flipped through a fair scrapbook, with newspaper clippings, tickets and awards.

He attributes the fair's success to community involvement from local people, businesses and churches.

"If you take the community out of the fair, all you've got is a carnival," he said.

McEachern said he's sure he'll make an appearance at the fair this year, but he'll skip the rides.

"I'm out of the ride business," he said with a grin.

The fair will always be a special place, he said.

"It's something different," said McEachern. "You can go to a movie any time you want, but you can only go the fair once a year."