From his upstairs window above the park, Don Johstono can look out and see a fair springing to life.
Not just any fair, either. The third-oldest fair in America.
Don does not see old. He sees tradition. The first Georgia State Fair was held 160 years ago, back in 1851.
His eyes can stretch over the tops of buildings, around fences and across the ballfields to the levee along Central City Park.
Everything is taking shape. All that’s left are the finishing touches. Buttons are being pushed, levers are being pulled and stakes are being tapped into the ground.
This year, there are other stakes, too.
Perhaps the highest ever.
It is his fervent hope that when the fair opens Saturday and runs through May 8, he can look out this same fair-office window and there will be so many people he won’t be able to see the ground beneath their feet.
He remembers those days, growing up in Macon, when going to the fair was a huge deal. It was always held the third week in October, historically one of the driest stretches on the calendar.
“Schools would close on Monday so everybody could go,” he said. “I remember the lights, the sounds, the smells. It was exciting.”
Someone once asked him why he wanted to go down there and wallow in all that dirt and dust.
“I never saw any of that,” he said, laughing. “I just saw the bright lights, how much fun people were having and the faces of all those children.”
Don is a local attorney and a member of the Exchange Club of Macon, which has operated the fair since 1942. He will be 57 years old next month. He spent most of his law career away from Macon but moved back several years ago.
There was a difference in the Georgia State Fair he left and the one he found when he returned home.
In 1990, the state-operated Georgia National Fair in Perry moved in and began chipping away at the base of the venerable Macon fair.
There were no territorial rights. Perry was newer and larger, with more muscle and shinier fixtures.
It was almost like a Super Wal-Mart moving into the neighborhood. How is the mom-and-pop store that has always been on the corner going to find a way to compete?
Over time, it became an increasingly difficult task. Support for the traditional Macon event began to steadily erode. Many who continued to attend the Georgia State Fair out of loyalty soon were forced to choose between dueling fairs.
It wasn’t always easy to make a date with the Perry fair in early October, then have enough entertainment dollars left for Macon a few weeks later. Besides, you can only eat so many elephant ears in one month.
The Georgia State Fair attempted to jump ahead of the Perry fair by switching to September on the fall calendar, but that didn’t work out. After a year’s sabbatical in 2009, it debuted last year in the spring with mixed results. The weather washed out an entire day. Half of the next day was spent mopping up. The midway was more like a mudway.
In this spring of unstable weather and an unstable economy, the fair faces an uncertain future. The board of directors, made up of Exchange Club members, takes an annual vote on whether the fair should continue.
After last year, there was plenty of debate on whether the show should go on. Don stepped forward and took the reins as fair director.
“I had just opened a new law office, and I knew this position would take a lot of time and effort,” he said. “But I love this fair. It is part of my life.”
There are plenty of challenges and few guarantees.
Among this year’s changes are improved parking closer to the front gates. Also, the layout of the midway has been reconfigured to run along the pavement toward Luther Williams Field.
The schedule has added some vitamins, too, with eight days of something for just about everyone. There is a senior day and a college night. There is a church night, military night, Latino day and special Mother’s Day party. There will be music, rides and, of course, that crunchy fair food you can’t get anywhere else.
One of the most intriguing events is May 7, when the Macon Bacon and Kazoo Club will attempt to set the record for “world’s largest potluck” dinner. And what better place to pay tribute to the birthplace of the kazoo, which was introduced at the Georgia State Fair in 1852?
An advance fair ticket costs $3, which is less than a gallon of gas these days. And where does that money go? After operating expenses are paid, the Exchange Club returns every dime to the community. During the past 68 years, more than $5 million has been awarded to local charities.
Macon has a reputation for failing to support many of its endeavors. Witness our recent struggles to keep the music and sports halls of fame. Lackluster attendance has cost us minor-league baseball, hockey and arena football.
It would be a sad day to have to add an icon like the Georgia State Fair to that list.
Two fairs, seven months apart. There’s plenty of room for both.
Reach Gris at 744-4275.