Chester Martin Remembers The Chattanooga And Hamilton County Interstate Fair

Friday, January 29, 2016

It was the best fair in the world! Period! The driving force behind its popularity and success was a lady named Olive Atwood. She was a master of co-ordination to bring all the elements together for each of the very many years. Warner Park was always the venue.

All I can do here is describe things I remember best about its physical "look." I am thinking now of a wonderfully clear and crisp September evening shortly after dark.

We have parked the car, which was a major achievement, as parking spaces were always scarce. Our lightweight jackets or sweaters feel good as we enter through the gracefully designed McCallie Avenue gate-house into a wonderland of light and color. A man wearing a brightly colored shirt and funny hat is hawking a display of those little toy birds attached to strings and when waved around make a whistling noise. Every kid in the place wants one, of course, and go chasing around after they have made their purchase. There are numerous stalls to our right which have shooting games with targets... plastic ducks that swim in circles to the right, disappear, and come back again from the left. Loud cracks of harmless gunfire indicate that someone is winning (or losing) some coveted prize of a plaster kewpie doll, or piggy-bank. I know a boy who paid over $100 to win such a prize!

On our left is a tent full of various magic acts and "freak" shows. A Scottish bagpiper is at the entrance, playing, "Oh Susanna" on his pipes, and the barker is telling how he (the piper) had played in a British memorial service for President Kennedy two or three years before. The magic acts are good, but when we have seen everything it is time to move on to the Midway. There are several wide steps between the upper level of Warner Park and the lower. The wide lower level runs parallel to the train yard on the west, and is usually flat and empty with only a few sparsely parked cars in it. However, by going down those wide steps this evening it is like entering Wonderland! During fair-week every inch is crammed with tents and lights arranged in race-track fashion so that your walking takes you on a long loop. There are ferris-wheels and other rides. For children and grown-ups alike it is just a fascinating place filled with fun houses, houses of mirrors, and  crowds of people. "Something for everyone."

Much more lies ahead, however, far off toward the Third Street entrance. Here are located the farm and wildlife exhibits. An entire tent is devoted to rabbits of every size, shape, and color imaginable. Mr. R.C. Huggins of our church is always an exhibitor here. And in an adjacent tent we find poultry. It is difficult to tell you how many varieties of chickens, ducks, geese, doves, pheasants, etc., are on display. All the keepers are on hand to talk about their various exhibits...

Always a focal point, the Tennessee Wildlife people have a tent of their own where they display a variety of the local fauna, from living snakes, turtles, and terrapins, to deer, skunks, (slightly altered, to be sure!) and raccoons. One year my family and I went on the first night and there was a sizable cage of six or eight baby raccoons. They were the liveliest little critters I had ever seen and they had the best time playing together: tossing and twisting about, climbing and scrapping harmlessly with each other. Amused crowds formed all around their cage just to watch their antics. At the end of the week I wanted to go back and have a second look at them before the fair closed, but by now they were absolutely worn out! They just lay there listlessly on the straw bottom of their cage hardly moving. I guess that is what Fame will do for anyone.

Over on the extreme northeast corner of the fairgrounds are two rather permanent looking buildings which are used as barns for the livestock exhibits. Even if you have "zero" interest in farming, you will be amazed at the beauty and quality of these animals. The exhibits are manned by the Future Farmers of America (FFA), who feed and care for the animals during their week of glory, and you leave that area with the good feeling that America is in good hands. Americans should ever appreciate the young men and women who choose to remain "down on the farm," and who keep us so well-fed!

During my four years at Kirkman Vocational High School, we aspiring art students always requested, and received permission, to go sketching at the fair. We would prop our sketchbooks on the concrete wall bordering the old McCallie Avenue viaduct. Standing on the sidewalk we could get nice perspectives on the Midway, with the sun always behind us so the light fell to best advantage on our subject. Sometimes we would go inside the grounds to make our sketches, and somewhere I have a drawing I made of a very obese gentleman seated at a food tent and using two stools to sit on. Back at school it received a few chuckles.

Since the Warner Park fair ended there has been a valiant effort to keep it going, but at another location. I praise those good people for their good work, but I have never been to one of them.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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