Imagine not knowing what pizza tastes like. In 1949, fairgoers in the South were hesitant to try the Italian delicacy that is such a popular treat today, said long-time carnival businessman Dominic Vivona.
Popcorn was once a novelty sold by the buckets at traveling fairs and carnivals, said Vivona, owner of Amusements of America, which has provided the Statesboro Kiwanis Club with a midway for its Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair for over 40 years.
People once looked forward to “fair food” such as candy apples and cotton candy, but now that those sweets can be found almost anywhere, fair food is just one area that has changed drastically over the years, he said.
Vivona, who has been in the fair business since 1940, said electronics and technology, as well as changes in social mores and tastes, have had a major impact on traveling fairs and carnivals.
Maybe popcorn isn’t so exciting anymore, but when the Pennsylvania Dutch introduced funnel cakes, crowds went wild, he said. And the pizza thing finally caught on. Unusual fair foods like deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos, turkey legs and even steak tips and seafood can be found at today’s fairs, he said.
A great deal more than the food has changed over the years, however. Fairs today have more exciting rides and less sideshows. The way the rides are paid for has changed, and there are a lot more amenities for today’s modern family, he said.
Longtime Statesboro Kiwanis Club member Darrell Colson has been fair chairman on several occasions and said one of the biggest changes is in the entertainment.
“We have more attractions from out of state,” such as a petting zoo, pig races and acrobats, he said. “We have bigger and better rides, and they have LED lights.”
The switch to LED lights saved a lot of money, Vivona said. Before, traveling wrought havoc on the older lightbulbs.
Sideshows disappeared from the midway as well, he said.
“We are more like an amusement park now, with rides from all over the country,” he said. “There are no more sideshows, freak shows or girlie shows” like were popular in the past. There were even minstrel shows, and performances that took place under a big top tent.
“They (sideshow people such as bearded ladies or owners of animals with unusual deformities) used to love it,” he said. “They made money.”
But circumstances and social opinions brought about changes, he said.
The fairgrounds themselves have changed, too. Now there are baby changing stations “and a cellphone charging station,” he said.
Kiwanis Club member Bill Anderson said the club has made a great deal of improvements to the grounds, and plans to expand further include restroom renovations. The club has placed a larger emphasis on the educational and informative displays and interactive attractions such as the Old Country Store and the Aldrich family farmhouse, he said.
Deb Pease, the club’s first female fair chair, said one change made a few years ago made parents of small children happy. The expanded and separate Kiddie Land area has rides and games geared toward the smaller visitor, while older teens and adults can roam the midway without disturbing small kids, she said.
Operations and interests
The way the fair operates has changed, too. Vivona remembers when rides were run by gasoline or diesel engines, but now they are all electric, run via computers and huge, portable generators.
Instead of a ticket booth outside each ride, there are just a couple of booths selling tickets for all rides, and wrist stamps (one-price, unlimited rides) are increasingly popular, he said.
Plus, there are “a lot more regulations,” Pease said.
“We have far more safety checks now,” he said. “Insurance companies, state inspectors, fairgrounds inspectors — we get checked weekly. They are very consistent.”
Regarding safety, the Kiwanis Club implemented a child identification program through which children attending the fair can get ID bracelets with their parents’ contact information written on them, Pease said.
FFA and 4-H members, along with others who enter projects or exhibits in the fair, can now do so online, paying fees with credit cards, she said. But the number of participants interested in arts and crafts, or livestock showing, has sharply decreased over the years.
“There are fewer youth interested in showing, especially large livestock,” she said. While the Kiwanis Club awards animals to potential show kids, “the cost of raising a pig or a steer has increased.”
Even advertising has changed. The club no longer produces an annual “fair book” with rules, contact numbers and ads. Instead, all information is posted online, and the club secures sponsors for the fair.
Another change is how the fair is operated, she said. While the annual event was once handled by club members, now outside groups help with security and other needs.
“It used to be, all club members would show up on workday Saturdays,” she said. “Not just the same five people every week.” But the fair has grown exponentially and outside help has become a necessity.
Anderson said the club hires outsiders to perform work club members once handled, such as plumbing and electrical repairs.
Another change in the club itself is that more young members are joining and becoming active, Pease said.
The 57th Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair will run through Saturday, with grounds opening today at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
Admission for those over age 6 is $5 a person.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.