Every fall, thousands upon thousands of South Carolinians anxiously await the chill in the air that suggests one of Columbia’s favorite pastimes is near — the South Carolina State Fair. For more than 175 years, the crisp air is the first sign of the fun and memories that await both young and old. This feast for the eyes, ears and stomach has been a mainstay in Columbia since 1836. First held at a site off of Elmwood Avenue, the South Carolina State Fair moved to its permanent home on Rosewood Drive in 1904 after the first location was burned by Sherman’s Army. What began as a corn show and agricultural showcase with cows and livestock has bourgeoned into a must-attend event that appeals to the delights of all.
To be sure, the foundation of the South Carolina State Fair — and most other fairs — is rooted in agriculture. While many other wonderful attractions are now found at today’s fair, Nancy Smith, assistant manager of the South Carolina State Fair, is committed to keeping those roots alive. “There are so many exciting things happening at the fair, so much change over the years, but we are trying to find new ways to keep the old roots of the fair in place,” says Nancy.
With that, this year’s State Fair will have an enhanced focus on competitive events, showcasing the talents of South Carolinians in a number of categories, including home and craft, baked goods, canning, woodworking, sewing, tatting, painting, needlepoint and beyond. More than 125,000 square feet of space is dedicated to competitive events and competitive arts, including that of hundreds of talented students from around the state. And more than $300,000 in awards is bestowed at the fair during the competitive events.
“We have representation from every county in the state through our Competitive Exhibits,” says Nancy. A great deal of planning goes into this aspect of the fair with the goal of making the best better. That goal of continued success and improvement can be seen in the growth of these exhibits, which include everything from flowers to canning, cows, swine, baked goods and more. The exhibit buildings, Moore, Cantey and Ellison, are some of the most visited on the fairgrounds.
The focus on the agricultural aspect of the fair has blossomed and is still a strong draw for fair-goers. What was once farmers getting together to show off their crops and horses is now an interactive, fun, lively showcase of some of the state’s most beloved animals. Pig races, swimming pigs and border collie exhibits are sure to keep the children smiling and entertained. The always-popular petting zoo features camels, elephants and ponies, among others — with rides offered for the bravest of visitors. A parent will never forget the first time their child tentatively puts their hand through the fence to pet a llama or sheep, the nervous laughter turning to squeals of joy.
For Nancy, this aspect of the fair is particularly special. “We have to remember that for some children coming to the State Fair, this might be the only time they are acquainted with an animal — a pig or a cow (as we will not have chickens this year due to avian influenza) — so it’s very important to have this available to them,” she says.
While the agricultural and competitive aspects of the fair continue to grow in popularity, there is no question the highlights of the South Carolina State Fair are the rides, the games and the food.
Ah, the food. The phenomenon around fair food has grown exponentially over the years, with one food provider trying to be more creative and daring than the next. Who could have imagined a fried Oreo? What about fried butter? Each year, new exciting foods are introduced to the fair — foods one would likely only find acceptable to eat during those 12 exciting days the fair is in town. This year is no different with the introduction of The Southern Belle Burger, which features a burger with bacon, pimento cheese salad and a fried green tomato … and the bacon cinnamon roll, which is exactly what it sounds like: the pairing of two breakfast delicacies, the cinnamon roll and bacon. It is a sweet, savory dish that is sure to please. The newer “old” favorites will also be on display for the daring diner — fried Oreos, fried Snickers, fried butter and the Krispy Kreme doughnut burger.
For many though, the classic corn dog, French fries and elephant ears are the sole purpose for attending the fair. More than 90 food stands throughout the Fairgrounds ensure there is something for everyone.
Cantey Heath, past president and a current board member of the South Carolina State Fair, still remembers his hamburger on a doughnut. “It was better than I thought. It’s kind of like when you eat pancakes and sausage and the syrup gets on your sausage — it’s still good,” he says. “But I don’t want another one.” Many of the food vendors come from out-of-state and tour the country, with South Carolina as one of their stops. “They know what works and what doesn’t, and they have a good time with it,” adds Cantey.
After feasting on fried foods, what better to do than jump on a roller coaster or Ferris wheel? Taking in the scenery from atop the swings or simply holding a little one’s hand on the kiddie rides, the exhilaration and sheer delight found on the rides at the State Fair can make even the most stressful day disappear into gleeful laughter or joyful trepidation.
Susanne Kennedy is on the Board of the South Carolina State Fair, having served as treasurer, and, at almost 80 years old, has only missed one State Fair in her life. F.B. “Buck” Ruff, her father, worked in the treasurer’s office and then served as general manager of the South Carolina State Fair, ensuring Susanne has been involved in the event to some extent her entire life. She has seen the exponential growth of the fair and attributes the success to the continued improvement of the facilities and the renewed focus on creating a family entertainment venue that everyone can enjoy. “Everyone loves the food, while the younger people enjoy the rides and the older guests like the home, craft and art exhibits,” says Susanne. “Our fair probably has one of the highest ride gross per person. People love to ride and eat!”
And they expect to be safe while doing it, which is why the State Fair is now safer and cleaner than ever before. More than 30 security cameras are placed throughout the fairgrounds, along with a temporary sheriff’s office, to monitor the grounds more closely. This year, the fair also features a new main entrance on Rosewood Drive that is set back from the street so that visitors can get in quicker and stay away from the street while waiting to enter. Additional underground wiring and plumbing ensure a more aesthetically pleasing environment.
“We continue to do what we can to improve the fair and keep people excited to come year after year,” says Cantey. “Everything is different now; kids are always on their computers. The State Fair is a great way to get them outside to enjoy themselves.”
For many, the satisfaction from attending the fair comes in walking back to the car with the 6-foot-tall stuffed animal, won in a competitive game of throwing darts, shooting free-throws, getting the ring around the bottleneck or knocking down a pyramid of bottles. Steady hands and patient fortitude are the only recipe for success in the fair’s games of skill.
Other major attractions at the year’s fair include the exciting Wild About Dinosaurs display; the transformation of 75,000 pounds of sand into stunning sculptures; and Balloonopolis, which features more than 10,000 balloons in a variety of colors and shapes.
An ever-growing attraction to the South Carolina State Fair is the grandstand entertainment, where well-known artists from contemporary Christian and country to rock and oldies keep people singing and dancing. “We try to have something for everyone,” adds Nancy. “It creates a great sense of excitement every year.” This year is no exception, with the fair featuring some of the hottest new talent and one of the true greats. The grandstand entertainment includes country star Thomas Rhett, country newcomer Cole Swindell, teen favorite Shawn Mendes, the chart-topping Newsboys, Christian worship group Israel and the New Breed, the US Army Field Band, The Volunteers and the incomparable Gladys Knight. The grandstand stage will be swaying with this year’s exceptional line-up.
While the rocking music, fantastic food, amazing rides and competitive elements of the fair are what keep visitors coming year after year, the greatest area of pride for Nancy and Cantey is the number of scholarships that are given away every year through its The Ride of Your Life Scholarship Program. The South Carolina State Fair’s self-supported non-profit organization is dedicated to educating South Carolina’s young adults by awarding $300,000 annually in scholarships. Each year, the organization gives away $1,500 a year for four years (with grades maintained) to graduating seniors attending in-state schools, including technical schools.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” says Cantey. “We don’t ask for any money to support our organization. You don’t find many groups like this one.” Selected students represent every Congressional district throughout the state. The process begins in February, and students can find the application on the South Carolina State Fair website at SCStateFair.org. Just one more reason to support South Carolina’s largest fair.
That, and the cotton candy, and the funnel cake, and the steak on a stick, and …