The Northeast Georgia Fair used to be a big deal in Hall County, with people from all over the state filling the fairgrounds off Shallowford Road and later in Oakwood.
Gainesville Jaycees for years operated the fair, assigning members before, during and after fair week to park cars, take up tickets, man the “dunk booth,” and monitor the various shows, including the “hootch” tent. When it was really big, there were agricultural exhibits, crafts and other local displays.
The fair was an arrangement between the Northeast Georgia Fair Association, which owned the property off Shallowford Road, and the Jaycees, which leased the fairgrounds. Most of the time it was a smooth operation between the two organizations, but bumpy at times, mostly because of finances.
The fair association formed officially in September 1940. Most of its members were farmers, but it also included non-farming citizens of the county. Conrad Romberg was the leader for many of its years. Others who were active in the association’s early days included Tom Chapman, Rudolph Clark, Tom Blackstock, Charlie Staton, John Cromartie, Charles Morrow, H.C. Martin, Perry Oliver, C.J. Westbrook and Charles Smithgall. Weymon Forrester shepherded the organization as its attorney for many years.
The association and the Jaycees in 1969, at the urging of farmers, decided to build a cattle auction barn on the property. It became a popular place for area farmers to sell and buy livestock. A busy country-cooking restaurant became a part of the operation.
Originally estimated to cost $100,000, the barn’s construction eventually cost $128,000, which the Jaycees borrowed. At one time, almost 2,000 heads of cattle were being sold by the barn monthly.
But by 1972, things had slowed down, and the barn wasn’t producing enough revenue to make payments on the debt. The financial situation didn’t improve, and a developer wanted to buy the fairgrounds property. Seeing an opportunity to pay off some debt and make a little money, the fair association agreed to sell the Shallowford Road property to Darby and Associates for $416,000. Darby built the Blue Ridge Shopping Center, which at the time included a movie theater. The auction barn wasn’t a part of the deal.
To keep the fair going, the association and Jaycees bought the Bryant Wallis property, 23 acres, in Oakwood for $176,000. The Jaycees continued to operate the fair in Oakwood until 1981, when lack of interest and declining attendance forced them to shut it down permanently.
The Oakwood property was leased for various other events, including a flea market.
Meanwhile, in 1983, Frank Pirkle bought the auction barn, and the fair association took back the operation of the fairgrounds in Oakwood. It finally decided to sell that property for $700,000 in 1999.
The Jaycees had gotten out of the fair and fairgrounds business and into the festival business, the annual Mule Camp Market, which it continues to sponsor each October in downtown Gainesville.
With its debt dissolved and its bank account flush with the sale of property, the fair association had little else to do. Bob Lowe, Hall County agricultural agent, asked the association to donate seed money for an all-purpose agricultural service building on Crescent Drive near the farmers’ market. The association eventually agreed to $50,000, which would go Hall County’s cost of building the building.
In winding down its business, the association also donated $40,000 to a 4-H trust fund to be used for scholarships and other activities. Another $75,000 went to the Jaycees, and $350,000 to United Way of Hall County.
With no fair to operate and having shed all its property, the Northeast Georgia Fair Association, which had been in existence more than half a century, decided to dissolve itself in May 1999. The partnership with the Jaycees had ended with the sale of the Oakwood property. Having found a way to provide a fair for Northeast Georgians for many years, the association let itself die a natural death after serving the area for six decades.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.