While the pandemic has placed a temporary 1-year hold on the much beloved Lee County Regional Fair, a stroll through the history books makes 2 things very clear. First, there have been other occasions when the fair needed to hit the pause button, and second, thanks in large part to the decades-long dedication of the Sanford Lions Club, this is only a temporary setback. Since it still is “fair week” here in Sanford and Lee County, let’s take closer look at this venerable event’s history. Fittingly, our first picture is from the very first fair, which took place in 1913. The rest of the images in this week’s column come from the much more recent past. Perhaps you recognize some familiar faces!, In the meantime, let’s also learn a bit more about the history of Lee County’s crown jewel of annual entertainment.
The first Lee County Fair was held in November 1913, in downtown Sanford at Chatham and Moore Streets. Exotic attractions like The Spider Girl, The Dixie Minstrel and a snake eating man were big hits with a large crowd. A year later, enthusiastic organizers constructed a one-third mile race track near Deep River to take advantage of the popularity of horse racing. According to published reports at the time, “few men were seen under the influence of liquor,” but gambling at some of the carnival tents got out of hand. Another 1914 highlight was a parade through downtown that featured over a thousand school children, representing 17 local schools.
The fair was discontinued in 1919, until the Sanford Chamber of Commerce revived it in 1927. A vacant lot behind the Lutterloh Building on Chatham Street hosted several tents. With the participation of local merchants and citizens, the fair was organized and paid for in roughly 6 weeks’ time. Flush with success, the fair formally organized in 1928, sold stock to local citizens and created fair grounds on land they purchased between Sanford and Jonesboro. Sadly, in the midst of the depression, investors lost money in 1929 and 1930. Fair organizers announced in August 1931 that there would be no fair that year and that their property was for sale.
November 13, 1933 brought a second revival of the fair with much greater results. Hundreds of exhibits, an appearance by internationally known daredevil aerialists The Flying Sullivans, state-of-the-art “mechanical rides,” and the crowning of Miss Lee County Fair were all well-received. By 1935, the Sanford Lions Club agreed to assume managerial control of the fair. The club continues doing so to this day. Through the Lions’ volunteer efforts throughout the ensuing decades, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been generated to serve local citizens, and hundreds of thousands of fair visitors have experienced lots of happiness.
Editorial content, pictures and research background , compliments of Jimmy Haire and Images of America: Sanford and Lee County, by Jimmy Haire & W.W. Seymour, Jr, available here for purchase. All book proceeds go to Sanford’s Railroad House Historical Association, Inc.