Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story had the wrong final day for the Columbia County Fair.
Orange, red and gold leaves might signal fall for some people, but for others it’s the smell of corn dogs, the taste of candy apples, the sticky texture of cotton candy and the spectacle of twinkling lights at the fair that herald the season.
With three fairs clustered together during October and November, Augusta residents have looked forward to this season for generations.
“I went almost every year growing up,” said Connie Hilbert, 40, of Augusta. Hilbert grew up in North Augusta and went to the Western Carolina State Fair in Aiken. “It was one of the times of the year when my parents would come together, and we’d do something as a family.”
As an adult, she’s passed on that love of attending the fair to her nieces and nephew.
“We have to ride the Gravitron about four times. My nephew loves the roller coasters. I still ride them too,” she said.
This year, the Western Carolina State Fair is the first to open. Located at the Aiken Fairgrounds, it runs Oct. 17-26; with the Georgia-Carolina State Fair running Oct. 18-27, at the Exchange Club Fairgrounds in downtown Augusta. The Columbia County Fair will be held Oct. 31-Nov. 9 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds.
Traci Powers, 43, of Graniteville, has fond memories of the fair.
“I loved the Himalaya and the Ferris wheel,” said Powers, who usually went to fairs in Aiken and Augusta. “We’d eat Polish sausage and have a candy apple. We loved playing the games. We’d waste so much money picking up ducks. It was fun.”
There’s more to the fair than rides, food and games. All three area fairs have entertainment and exhibits. The Georgia-Carolina State Fair, presented by the Augusta Exchange Club, is in its 91st year. It raises money for numerous charities in the Augusta area. The Merchants Association of Columbia County is the presenting organization for the Columbia County Fair. The group gives scholarships to Columbia County students and donates to area charities. The fair is its biggest fundraiser.
Powers said she liked to check out the sideshows with the bearded lady and other unusual acts. In high school, she went to the art exhibits because she had a friend who was entered in them.
For some, the fair holds deeper and sometimes sentimental reasons.
Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman Jr. said the fair opened his eyes to the possibility of art as a career because people saw his work displayed there.
“Ms. (Rosanne) Stutts would get her art students’ work and submit it to the fair,” Zimmerman said of his art teacher at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School. “In my junior year, I won a best of show with Katie Phoenix and Pat Bresenham. We did a composite image the old-fashioned way – in a darkroom. I think we won like $100.”
Known for his quirky robots, which are featured in murals in public spaces, including the waterworks’ wall on Wrightsboro Road and the Augusta-Richmond County Library, Zimmerman said the fair competition played a pivotal role in him choosing his career.
“It gives you a sense of empowerment and accomplishment,” he said.
The fair also had intangible qualities for Angelina Scott.
“It was basically the highlight of every year,” said Scott, 36, of North Augusta. “It’s all we had. I grew up in that area. I lived in walking distance of it.”
Sometimes, they’d get free admission tickets through school, but they always saved up their money, just in case.
And although it was a few blocks from where she lived, walking into the fair was like walking into another world for Scott. There, she could blend in with other people out having fun.
“It was almost as if we didn’t live in the ’hood, and I was not a poor kid,” she said.
Now, she and her husband, Matthew, take their daughter, Taloria, 10, to the fair, but she said it seems not as many people do these days.
“When we do go, it’s not as crowded as it used to be. I see people from our generation, but not as many children,” she said.