Opinion Columns & Blogs

Georgia’s fair, Perry’s fair


I wrote the next two paragraphs about 14 years ago, and called it, “Pachyderms and Piccolos.” Here it is:

“Elephants, real live elephants, walking down Carroll, Perry’s main street. And, lions and tigers in cages. And the Clydesdale horses and the Heinz Hitch. When I was a boy growing up in Perry, and even when I first went to the General Assembly in 1973, if someone had told me that there would be elephants on Perry’s Carroll Street, I would have probably responded: “Man, you are crazy!” But, there they were. I saw them myself.

“Equally impressive, even if in a different way — we are going to have the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry tomorrow night. The performance will be held in the McGill Exhibition Hall with doors to open at 5 p.m. The warm up performance will begin at 6:30 p.m. This is big — really big. Is it as big as the Clydesdales? I don’t know, but I do know the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is known world-wide and has won 18 Grammys. And, they are coming to Perry!”

And, they did come to Perry. The gray elephants and the piccolo players and I thought it was about the most exciting thing that could ever happen to our little city — or town, or village or hamlet. Size is relative, you know.

But let’s back up with a few remembrances (out of many that should be written down and preserved before it’s too late and impossible to preserve accurately). It was probably 1988, but it could have been 1987, Joe Frank Harris was Georgia’s governor, Foster Rhodes and I were riding home, late afternoon, to officially deliver the news that Perry, yes little Perry, was going to be the official site of the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter. There was a crowd, what, perhaps 150 or so, waiting at Perry’s Holiday Inn for us and a celebration, what seemed so long in coming, but now so short, because it was Perry. Not Macon, not Atlanta, not Cordele nor Tifton, but little Perry.

And, as excited as I was, the words still rung in my ears: “boondoggle, cow barn, white elephant, doomed to failure…” But I believed, well, I sorta’ believed, I wanted to believe. Was I like the little boy whistling in the graveyard? And it was going to happen, thanks to Foster Rhodes, Curley Cook, Arthur White Jr., Barbara Calhoun, Joe Frank Harris, Joel Cowen, Marcus Collins, Jerry Horton, Hugh Gillis, the Beckham brothers (Ed and Billy), Henry Reaves, Tom Murphy, Gene Sutherland, Johnny Webb, Bill Roberts, Lewis Meeks, Wayne Shackleford, Emory Greene, Bill Roquemore and many others, and with my frank acknowledgement that the omission of other names is a shame. That’s one reason that a history needs to be written, and soon.

And, suddenly, it’s Oct. 6, 2016, and the expectations for the 27th successive fair are upon us.

Let me back up one more time to the first “National Fair,” 27 years ago and with the words “boondoggle” and “white elephant” then on my mind. I drive out to U.S. 41 where Pineneedle Drive intersects and watch traffic. And, here they came, not in torrents, but enough to give hope. Maybe it will work. Maybe.

And, then it’s Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 — the next to last day of the 2016 fair. And, they pour down U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 and Courtney Hodges Boulevard, and they come like agitated fire ants — from all directions. Ninety-three thousand — that’s 93,000 happy people through the gates at the Ag Center. Interestingly, that’s almost exactly the same number that UGA’s Sanford Stadium will hold. Many of you have seen Sanford Stadium full on many occasions. It’s a magnificent sight and at a magnificent site. Now, think about that many people in Perry, a city now of about 15,000, and being properly accommodated. It’s a magnificent sight and at a magnificent site.

By the way, there was a 536,000 plus total attendance in 2016, but, to me, the 93,000-plus in one day is even more amazing. The only thing in Georgia as big, attendance wise, that could seat this many people, is Sanford Stadium. And, while UGA does have piccolo players (maybe), they don’t have live elephants. But, of course, we don’t have white elephants, only gray ones, on occasions.

Larry Walker is a practicing attorney in Perry. He served 32 years in the Georgia General Assembly, and presently serves on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Email: lwalker@whgmlaw.com.