Classy costume, huh?

Classy costume, huh?

The Virginia State Fair was one of my great-grandfather’s favorite places. He went a lot and took pictures (and movies!) every time. Everything from performers to the Ford Tractor exhibit caught Harry Stilson’s eye. Nearly 100 years later, we benefit from his zeal.

Ford Exhibit, State Fair

Ford Exhibit, State Fair

The fair has been in a few locations over the years. In Harry’s day, it was at Hermitage Road, basically where the Diamond (Parker Field to us old Richmonders) is today. In my Jackson Ward book,released soon, I have oral histories of some of the “kids” who sneaked in to see the attractions. Morris Goldberg’s memories included motorcycle races where they used castor oil “to make them run better” and a story about confronting the Fair barker about the authenticity of one of the “freaks” advertised. He declared that if he paid his money, that person had BETTER not have a head or he wanted his money back. “Get lost, kid” was the response. P.T. Barnum’s “sucker born every minute” theory didn’t apply to Morris Goldberg. If he had slipped through the pried-apart fence to get into the fair, he wanted his money’s worth. So what if he hadn’t spent any?

Acrobats

Acrobats

The movies I donated to VCU Libraries included scenes from the fair 1929-1931. They had elephants! And the rides are still the same…the Caterpillar and the Flier (swings), among others. They had water shows, too. One was the traditional dive from a dizzying height and another showed women doing some kind of tricks in what was basically an above-ground swimming pool. Horse racing was captured for future generations in both stills and movies. If I ever had a minute to spare, I’d research the races to see if a champion was tearing around the Richmond horse track the day Harry filmed.

Bareback riders, 1920 State Fair

Bareback riders, 1920 State Fair

StateFairCatride

Caterpillar ride, State Fair

Harry Stilson was the poor man’s photographer and as such, we have found no images of famous Richmonders. No Maggie Walker (but we have her bank!), no John Mitchell, Jr. …but wait! Who is that African American man dancing in that picture? Could it be Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? Naw, probably not but I am still going to the library to check out the newspaper for that year’s fair. You just never know.

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