HEFLIN — Minutes after the Cleburne County Fair opened Saturday afternoon, Casey McBrayer was already a winner.
He dropped a few dollars on the Pop-the-Balloon game, winning an absurdly long inflatable sword that looked like it might be useful for chasing Aladdin across the rooftops. McBrayer’s 6-year-old son Casey swung the sword in broad arcs as the two wandered from booth to booth.
“It’s a way to get him out of the house,” said McBrayer, who lives in Hollis Crossroads. “And it looked like it might be fun.”
Late-summer restlessness brought hundreds out Saturday for the last night of the fair, an annual event that’s perhaps more popular than any outside observer might have expected.The fairground is off an interstate exit in the rural center of a county of about 15,000 people. The temperature was 90 degrees when the event opened mid-afternoon. Forecasts for every night of the fair, which opened Wednesday, had rain about as likely as heads on a coin toss.
And yet organizers say the event regularly draws 3,000 to 6,000 people. Organizers didn’t have a head count Saturday, but by 3 p.m. at least 150 cars had lumbered down the rutted gravel drive and into the parking lot. No one seemed to have come alone. Parents, orbited by rowdy kids, wandered between brightly painted, lightly faded carnival rides. Teen couples stopped warily in front of carnival games, as if judging their chances of a win.
“Everybody likes an old-fashioned county fair,” said Kari Payne, the fair’s chairman.
The event isn’t actually old. The Cleburne County Chamber of Commerce put it together as a fundraiser less than a decade ago. They had been hosting an annual golf tournament, but the fair seemed like a better fit.
“We wanted to find a way to let local people and businesses showcase themselves,” Payne said. “This seemed natural. So much of our economy is agricultural.”
There was a county fair here through much of the 20th century. Payne said she doesn’t know when ended or why. The last Anniston Star account of that fair was written in 1978. Then, as now, livestock shows and carnival rides were the big attractions.
“I’m not getting on any of these things,” said Bill Prestridge, of Heflin, as he watched workers setting up a spinning carnival ride. Prestridge brought a group of young relatives — he referred to them as his adopted grandkids — to the fairground, largely because they were bored.
“It gives them something to do,” he said.
The fair gives local businesses something to do, too. Daniel Hall, owner of Tickled Pink Petting Zoo in Randolph County, stood outside his traveling zoo holding a baby kangaroo that he still hasn’t given a name. People think the petting zoo is an attraction for kids, he said, but it’s parents who make up much of the crowd.
“Kids lose interest in five minutes,” he said. “It’s the grownups who hang around and ask the most questions.”
Daniel said his work doesn’t end with county fair season. Churches call him for live nativity scenes and schools also schedule events.
“We’ve even got a wedding in north Georgia soon,” he said.
The old, 20th-century county fair was typically held in September or October, according to accounts in The Star. Fair organizers do invite feedback, and the top complaint every year is that the August fair is too hot and too early in the season.
But there’s a reason for the August date, she said.
“We try our best to avoid conflicts with football season,” Payne said. “We’re aware that there are a lot of Auburn and Alabama fans here.”
In the past, the event was held at the old fairground on Alabama 9, but in recent years, organizers moved it to Exit 205.
The Ferris wheel and a tilt-a-whirl, visible from the Interstate, are more evocative than any billboard could be. Passers-by seem to know exactly what they can find here.
“We’ve had people from out of state stop here just because they saw us and wanted funnel cakes,” Payne said.