Wednesday, September 11, 2013 1:00 AM
Only a few weeks ago, the 124th session of the famous Neshoba County Fair ended on August 2, 2013. Forty-one years ago in 1972, a new event occurred and quickly established itself in the annals of Fair history - the Great Neshoba Fair Chair Race (GNFCR). Beginning in the early 1970s, the Fair Association began eliminating the entertainment between the afternoon races, and started booking larger-named and better-known talent for performances on the newly-constructed stage at the racetrack. As expected, big entertainment names produced large crowds, and all Grandstand seats quickly filled.
To alleviate this problem, the Association allowed part of the track and infield for patrons to set up folding chairs to watch and listen to the stage concerts. The best seating areas were in front of the Grandstand and nearest the forward section of the stage platform. At the conclusion of the last running horse race, Fair officials allowed music fans to enter on the red dirt track to set up their seats for the 8:00 p.m. shows. Entertainment enthusiasts quickly understood that the first on the track got the prime spots, and started lining the oval track entrances hours before the last race. Others paid younger family members, loaded with chairs taped together for maximum leverage, to await the race for the territorial claims on the best spots, and paid handsomely for top positions.
After track announcer Jim Dance, who, for the past hour, had playfully teased and incited the race "wanna-bes" took the microphone and roared, "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines," or was it, "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your kids," or "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your chairs," and within seconds, a wave of humans, a sea of flesh, streaked toward the stage, chairs under arms, causing a cloud of red dirt to fill the air. Men, women and children, from ages three to eighty, courtesies lost in the excitement, pushed forward pell-mell to plant their chairs.
Dan Turner of The Meridian Star, in an article written in August of 1985, wrote that the GNFCR at that time was a contest between battle-hardened and scarred veterans. He characterized the sprint and sit competition as a cross between full contact "Family Feud," and the 3 o'clock bell on the last day of school. One seasoned "good-ole-boy" chair racer said, "It's worse than wrestling. I ain't too sure wrestling is real, but I know this is!" Another chair runner, a Fair postal worker displayed a small scar from a prior race, and said, "Unless you've been in it, you don't know the danger." The mail service employee also recalled that, "A small, grey-haired old lady attacked me with her chair a few years ago. The best way to start chair racing is to observe one day, and go for it cold turkey the next." Others noted that "Running with the bulls in Spain has nothing on running with music crazies at the historic Neshoba County Fair."
On July 28, 2005, Fair officials anxiously awaited a successful programming of the hour long Sports Center from the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) from the track of the Neshoba County Fair. As to the network's 50-state-50 days summer tour, Senior Vice President and Managing Editor Norby Williamson stated, "This is a phenomenal opportunity for ESPN to touch our viewers, to personally meet the fans who watch us every day. Along the way, we will educate our viewers about the varied sporting events, popular throughout the country, and point out the well-known, and perhaps not-so-well known, athletes and events from each state." The segment opened with anchor Linda Cohn broadcasting from a set stage in the infield of the race track. Cohn joked by saying, "There isn't any legalized [pari-mutuel] gambling in Mississippi, but what happens at the Neshoba County Fair stays at the Neshoba County Fair." As usual, producers saved the best for last - the 135th running of the GNFCR. Cohn, with a large smile on her face and with a sense of the unknown, handled the starting honors. After she barked into the track public address system the magic words, Ready, Set and Go, the bodies and chairs moved forward, in an eddy of red dust, as described by Jeff Edwards, a race novice, of The Neshoba Democrat.
Edwards wrote, "And they were off, running with lawn chairs to try and get a seat right in front of the stage. It looked more like a controlled mob to me, rather than a race, but whatever." Fair officials and Jim Dance could not have believed in their wildest dreams, that the event born in 1972, would, thirty-three years later, be viewed by millions of racings fans over the entire United States and in other counties affiliated with ESPN.
Civil War Veterans
Stovall, James M. - Private; enlisted April 24, 1861, at Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Company D, 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment; age nineteen; farmer; received $50.00 re-enlistment bounty at Camp Fisher, near Dumfries, Virginia, February 7, 1862; furloughed; wounded at Gaines' Mill, June 27, 1862; hospitalized with variola confluent [smallpox] at Howard's Grove Hospital, Richmond, Virginia, December 14, 1862; died at Richmond, December 19, 1862; death benefits of $181.25 received by Littleton M. Stovall, January 26, 1863.
World War II Veterans
Seward, Otto Graves - Private to Corporal; enlisted on November 15, 1941 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in the United States Army; age twenty-four; sales clerk; nick-named "Buck;" served and trained in the American Theatre of Operations at MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, June 1942, and as a supply technician at the 3704th Base Unit with the Army Air Corps; stationed and trained as an aircraft and engine mechanic at an Air Corps Training School (Isaac Delgado Trade School), at New Orleans, Louisiana, and at Keesler Field, Mississippi; stationed at La Junta, Colorado, January, 1944 to October 1944; awarded the American Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal; discharged at Maxwell Field, Alabama, December 10, 1945, convenience of the government; described as five feet six inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes.
Philadelphia-Neshoba County Historical Museum
Steven H. Stubbs, Curator
303 Water Avenue South Philadelphia, Mississippi 39350 (601) 656-1284
10 a.m. - 3 p.m.;
Monday thru Friday