The North Carolina State Fairgrounds: No one-trick pony


illustration by Emily Brooks

by J. Peder Zane

photography by Nick Pironio

Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, step right up and prepare to

be bedazzled, bewitched, mesmerized and amazed.

For a limited time only, you can witness the biggest, fiercest, most commanding

creatures to ever stride across this green earth: Stegosaurus, Spinosaurus,

Triceratops, Iguanodon – and the king of ’em all, the lordly T-Rex!

Like your four-footed friends a little friendlier?

Marvel at the power and grace of equine excellence  at the jump horse show!

Prefer the rough and tumble of fast girls with sharp elbows?

Thrill to the Carolina Rollergirls!

Artistically inclined?

Transport yourself through the exotic music and dance of India!

Looking for a new career?

Step right this way and take the North Carolina Pesticide Licensing Exam!

Does all that make you hungry?

Treat yourself to a homemade funnel cake or a crispy fried Twinkie!

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, where every day offers a new and mind-bending attraction. The State Fair remains its Super Bowl, World Series and Final Four all rolled into one – more than 1 million people are expected to attend this year’s edition, which runs Oct. 16-26.

But the fairgrounds is no one-trick pony. It stages almost 500 shows annually, drawing another million people over the course of the year to the site at the corner of Hillsborough Street and Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh. “There is a carnival atmosphere here all year round,” said Wesley Wyatt, who has been manager of the fairgrounds since 1997. 

In this world where change is the only constant, the boat show, book show, car show, cat or dog show pulls up its stakes so the farm show, gun show, fish, horse or dinosaur show can set down its own. 

As trains and tractor-trailers unload the crowd-dazzling spectacle staged by those national traveling shows, locals prepare the site for their own festivities. The fairgrounds is where many Tar Heels celebrate Persian New Year, Chinese New Year, the end of Ramadan, and Easter. It is where ethnic and cultural groups, including Greeks, Scandinavians, and pagans, honor their heritage. It hosts private luncheons, lavish fund-raisers, birthday bashes, anniversary parties and weddings – both in its chapel and on the midway – and Raleigh’s largest flea market.

It is also, of course, where the circus comes to town. 

In the largest sense, the North Carolina State Fairgrounds embody the spirit of Raleigh and our state. Like the region it serves, the fairgrounds sits at the nexus of innovation and tradition. It is where deep roots anchor an ever-evolving landscape. It is where diversity and singleness of purpose go hand-in-hand. It is where modern business practices rest upon time-honored principles. The fairgrounds is Raleigh’s original moveable feast. 

Though its location has changed through the years – a 16-acre plot between Hargett and Davie streets hosted the first State Fair in 1853 – its purpose has remained unchanged: to bring the community together to build a better future and have some fun. 

Back then, North Carolina agriculture was woefully backward. Few farmers fertilized their crops; many still used scythes to harvest grain. The fair was envisioned by men whose last names are still familiar – including Denison Olmsted (whose geological survey of the state was the nation’s first), Paul C. Cameron (a UNC benefactor), Dr. John F. Tompkins (an educator and the editor of an influential farm journal) and Calvin H. Wiley (author and champion of public education) – as a means to educate farmers about best practices through instructive competition. 

Early fairs exhibited “floral arrangement, fruits, fancy needlework … machinery, field crops, and agricultural implements,” reports Melton A. McLaurin in his lavishly illustrated history, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years. Like today, the best entries were awarded prizes, inspiring others to up their game. 

Unlike in Europe, where agricultural fairs were almost wholly educational affairs dominated by the landed elite, fairs in democratic America sought to attract the masses by also featuring games of chance and horse races. The midway began to take on elements of the modern carnival in the 1870s, a trend that exploded during the 1890s when touring carnival businesses were formed. For many decades during this Jim Crow era, African-Americans held a Negro State Fair right after the official State Fair.

By the time the North Carolina State Fair opened at its present site in 1928, the carnival aspect – which included hoochie-coochie dancers, freak shows, daredevils and rides – had overtaken but never completely displaced its agricultural purposes. 

Reflecting the era’s virulent racism, the “Negro State Fair” was abandoned after 1930. It wasn’t until 1948 that state leaders created a separate department for “Negro” exhibits, McLaurin writes. The fair remained segregated until 1965. 

In the decades after World War II, the state’s burgeoning ambition and prosperity sparked an explosion of new facilities at the fairgrounds: the saddle-shaped J.S. Dorton Arena arose in 1952, the Kerr Scott Building in 1974, the Gov. James E. Holshouser Building in 1975, the Jim Graham Building in 1975, the James B. Hunt Horse Complex in 1983, the Exposition Center in 2005 and the Gov. James G. Martin Building in 2006. The 344-acre site now includes more than 400,000 square feet of indoor space. This construction boom allowed the fairgrounds to transition from a two-week-a-year facility into a year-round operation. Today, the fairgrounds staff stages two events a year: the Got to be NC Festival in May and the State Fair in October. The rest of the time it supports a thriving rent-a-hall business that leases space to groups and organizations. The Martin Building can be yours for as little as $600 a day, while rental of the much larger 100,000-square-foot Graham Building starts at $4,000 a day. If you’re interested, you better plan ahead. The fairgrounds books most of its facilities one to two years in advance. 

The fairgrounds is operated as an Enterprise Fund, meaning it receives no state money and operates as an independent concern. It is overseen by the N.C. Department of Agriculture. Its manager, Wesley Wyatt, is appointed by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. Its other employees are state workers. In the last fiscal year, it took in $15.3 million and spent $13.9 million. The surplus is plowed back into the site to maintain, upgrade, and expand the facilities.

All things, all people

The fairgrounds succeeds despite a business model that could be seen as old-fashioned. In an era of niche marketing, it still tries to be all things to all people. It accommodates groups from 10 to more than 10,000, serving everyone from farmers to brides to tony fashionistas to flea-market fanatics seeking deals on tube socks and shot glasses. At a time when shopping is increasingly moving into the virtual mall of cyberspace, the fairgrounds depends on the ancient need of people to touch and feel products, of buyers and sellers to look each other in the eye.

David Zimmerman, president of Southern Shows, Inc., which produces 18 trade shows across the South each year, said his family held their first event at the fairgrounds in 1961. This year, he is staging four large shows there: the Southern Ideal Home Show (twice a year), the Southern Women’s Show and the Southern Farm Show, which attracts visitors from 150 miles away. “We keep coming back because they offer large, excellent facilities, very easy access and plenty of free parking,” Zimmerman said. “The growth of Raleigh and Wake County has only made it more attractive for us. If I have any complaint, sometimes I wish they had even more space.”  The fairgrounds employees are a major boon as well, he says. “They are problem solvers…when issues arise, their only question is: how can I help?” 

That esprit de corps is palpable when you speak to the 63 full-time employees and 33 part-time employees (including work-release prisoners) employed by the fairgrounds (another 600 to 700 people are employed on a temporary basis during the State Fair). They are a rich mix of long-time residents and recent immigrants that represents the changing demographics of our region. 

Some employees are Tar Heels born and bred who have worked at the fairgrounds for most of adult lives. Wyatt came in 1973, when he was a junior at Needham Broughton High School, using swing blades to clear brush and shovels to muck out the stalls. “I went on to Carolina and worked here during the summers, landscaping, putting stalls up in the Graham Building,” he said. “Then I was an event coordinator and assistant before becoming the manager in 1997.” 

Ray Frost, assistant manager for operations and manager of the Hunt Horse Complex, got his first job at the fairgrounds in 1987 while he was playing football at N.C. State University. ”I left a few times,” he said, “but every time I ended up back here. It gets in your blood. There’s also always something new and exciting. For me there are very few days that I dread coming to work.” 

Many other employees came to the fairgrounds from around the world, including Europe, Central America, Africa and Asia, giving this anchor of North Carolina culture a truly international flavor.

Their work runs the gamut – from booking shows and planting colorful flowers and shrubs, to setting up tables, emptying garbage cans, and making sure vendors and visitors want to keep coming back. 

“It sounds cliché, but we really are like a family around here,” said Wyatt. “Most of us have worked together so closely for so long that when something comes up we don’t ask, ‘Whose job is it?,’ we just pitch in and help each other get it done. I think that’s a major reason why we have as much fun as the people who come here.” 


Dempsey Means: Never say no

Dempsey Means has a simple philosophy for his job as grounds foreman for the North Carolina State         Fairgrounds: “Never say no.” The 55-year-old Raleigh native put this idea into action during an interview as he answered an endless stream of phone calls.  A promoter needs a dumpster: On it.

Another promoter has finished setting up and needs his building locked: On it. Another caller says only one side of the Graham building is receiving heat: On it. 

“There’s always something going on,” he says with a laugh. “I feel lucky to have a job where I spend my days helping people.” 

Means began attending the fair when he was 7; he remembers getting lost in the Dorton Arena as a sixth grader. The former Marine got a temporary job here in 1988 that soon became a permanent position. He spent many years working for his father-in-law, who worked at the fairgrounds for 47 years. 

Today, Means manages a crew of 14, whose duties include cleaning out the stalls, setting up table and chairs, fixing lights and, every so often, chasing down wayward heifers and horses. 

“We don’t worry about who is supposed to do what,” he said. “Whatever needs to get done, gets done. Most of us have worked together so long we’re not just a team but a family.” 

An ordained minister, Means said those ties have been strengthened by the weekly religious service he holds for interested employees and by the twice-a-year employee dinners. 

“We genuinely enjoy each other’s company,” he explained. “My wife says, ‘You love your job.’ and I tell her ‘Yes, I do.’ ”


Y-Phuoc B’Krong: Now it’s my home

Nothing reflects the mix of tradition and change that defines the North Carolina State Fairgrounds better than the 16 pins dotting the world map that adorns the wall of the main business office. A few decades ago, those pins could have represented the different North Carolina counties that employees hailed from. Now they represent different countries. 

The 63 employees include immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, Germany, Iraq, Burundi, Gabon, Liberia, Togo, and Ivory Coast as well as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. 

This mini-United Nations is the result of both tragedy and compassion. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 prompted tighter security measures, the fairgrounds had to let go of several undocumented employees. Faced with a labor shortage, fairgrounds manager Wesley Wyatt and grounds foreman Dempsey Means turned to their faith, reaching out to Lutheran Services Carolinas, which works with refugees, as well as the Literacy Council of Wake County. 

“It is a blessing to be able to help really fine people who have had to face unspeakable hardships,” Wyatt said. “It is one of our proudest achievements.” 

Y-Phuoc B’Krong, 28, says he left Vietnam to escape the cultural and religious persecution he faced as a member of the minority Montagnard ethnic group. Like many of his fellow workers, he is thankful for his job maintaining the buildings and grounds but hopes for an even brighter future. Where some want to use their skills as craftsmen and cooks, he dreams of becoming a singer. Back home, he was a contestant on the television show Vietnam Idol. He drew warm applause when he sang the national anthem at the State Fair in 2012. The one thing he is sure of is that life provides unexpected twists and turns. “I’d never heard of North Carolina until I got here,” he said. “Now it’s my home.”

_PIR2958Joe Crosby:  A job and a life

Joe Crosby owes almost everything he has – including his family, his job and his home – to the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. 

“I live right on site, inside Gate 6,” says the 48-year-old, whose official title is assistant ground superintendent but who might also go by the monikers Mr. Fixit and Dr. Troubleshooter. “I’m on call 24/7, all year-round. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. If something goes bump in the night, I’m there.” 

Crosby, who began working at the fairgrounds in 1995, said an eerie calm replaces the crazy cacophony every evening, turning an island of hustle and bustle into a sea of tranquility. He’s not always alone. Especially during the State Fair, exhibitors will sleep on site, in RVs or at the Youth Center. Many of them have become friends. One became his wife. 

“She’s the Fudge Lady’s daughter,” he said, referring to his mother-in-law, an Indiana resident who spent decades selling Amish cheese and fudge at Fairs around the country. He and Rhonda married, of course, in the fairgrounds’ chapel. 

Although food is a big fairgrounds draw, Crosby said there’s a reason people only indulge a few times a year. “It’s expensive and kind of the same,” he explained with a shrug. “When I began working here I used to love barbecue. Then everyday people would ask me, ‘Would you like to have some barbecue? Would you like to have some barbecue? Now I can’t stand it.” That’s a small price to pay, he said for a job that’s provided him with a life.