From Cattle to Carousels, Tomatoes to Tiaras

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

You Can Find It at the Gwinnett County Fair

by Belinda Sawyer

The 55th annual Gwinnett County Fair opens September 14, 2006. Over the course of 10 days, the fairground will host 55 rides run by 200 carnies; 60 concessions, from food to games of skill to the world's smallest horse; nearly 1,000 animals (not including the world”s smallest horse); 175 beauty pageant contestants and 150,000 attendees using several million tickets to have some old-fashioned, family fun.

There have been fairs in Gwinnett since the late 1800″s, but these were random events. In 1952, the Gwinnett County Fair was created as a nonprofit organization dedicated to education and family entertainment.

"Our goal has always been to provide good entertainment to the community," says J.W. Benefield, former Gwinnett school superintendent and CEO of the fair.

"The original site was on Stone Mountain Street, where City Park West is now," recalls fair vice president Bill Baughman. The 10-acre site is smaller than the parking lot of the current fairground. "We had a small barn and a small exhibit area with gravel floors. It was out of the wet, if it rained, but that”s about all you could say for it."

In 1972, the organization bought the 80-acre property on Sugarloaf Parkway. The pathways were rocky, but the first exhibit building had a concrete floor. In the years since, monies earned are put back into fairground improvement including walkways, a huge barn, a large exhibit building and an air-conditioned entertainment building. Most recently the fair offices have been refurbished and now include meeting space and a banquet room.

"I remember when the office was a 10 by 12 space with nothing but a filing cabinet and some concrete blocks with a plank wide enough to hold the telephone," Benefield says. "We”ve come a long way from that."

You Must Be At Least This Tall To Ride

Many people associate the fair with its carnival rides. The rides for the Gwinnett County fair are provided by Amusements of America, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest traveling amusement park in the world.

Amusements of America was founded in 1939, when the five Vivona brothers purchased the Ferris wheel from the 1939 World”s Fair in New York. Since then, the family has supplied carnival rides to fairs, large and small, all across the country.

"We have two or three units on the road at any given time," says Dominic Vivona, Sr., one of the company owners. "It takes two units to do your fair in Gwinnett. Overall, we do about 60 fairs a year."

A staff of 200 people accompany the 55 rides. Setup takes two days, breakdown usually can be done in one. "Sometimes big rides, like the coasters, take a little longer," Vivona says.

The carnival midway also includes between 50 and 70 independently run concessions – games, food stands and side shows complete with barkers to attract the visitors” attention (and money).

"The exact mix of rides varies from year to year, but there”s always a similar ratio of kiddie rides to major attractions," Baughman points out. "I can”t say any particular ride is more popular than the others. There”s usually a line for the Crazy Mouse, but that”s partly because it loads car by car, not 20 to 30 people at a time. Of course, on wristband nights, there”s a line for everything."

Wristband night, when the purchase of a wristband allows unlimited rides, is just one of the campaigns the fair”s board uses to promote the fair. Early in September, Gwinnett county schoolchildren bring home a coupon for $1 off adult admission on Tuesday. Radio ads, newspaper announcements, billboards and a reminder in your water b