The State Fair: A Tradition in Raleigh Since 1853

The State Fair: A Tradition in Raleigh Since 1853

October, 08, 2009, by Ladye Jane

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Beginning as early as 1853, North Carolinians from all over the state flock to Raleigh for the annual State Fair. What began as strictly an agricultural exposition has evolved to include an explosion of games, rides, crafts, food, and fun as well.

The original fairgrounds stood on the east side of downtown, and were known as “Morus Multicaulis Field” due to the abundance of mulberry trees. During the Civil War, the grounds were used as a military training camp and as a confederate hospital. In 1865, during the Union troop occupation of Raleigh, the grounds served as Union barracks. Throughout this time the Fair was obviously on hiatus, but started back up in 1869, and moved to the west side of town in 1873 to an area called “Cook’s Hill”. After a few difficult years, and a few years off, the fair settled in its current day location in 1928.

One of the most notable aspects of the current day fairgrounds is the striking modern architecture of the J.S. Dorton Arena. Matthew Nowicki, the architect of Dorton Arena, died in a plane crash two years before the structure opened in 1952. It was originally called “State Fair Arena” but was renamed in honor of J.S. Dorton, a former State Fair manager. Its unique parabolic structure makes it one of North Carolina’s most recognizable buildings.

This year, the fair kicks off on October 15, and runs through the 25th. Learn more about this year’s fair, “A Whole Lotta Happy” here.

Images courtesy of the Raleigh City Museum

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Olde Raleigh, Other posts by Ladye Jane.


Olde RaleighJ.S. Dorton ArenaNorth Carolina State Fair


  • VaNC
    10/08 02:19 PM

    Yay!  I am a sucker for the fair…we go twice…

  • roi
    10/09 08:10 AM

    I always go every 10 years.  It is always basically the same…... entertainment, rides, great snack food, animals, flowers, canned items, etc. entered to get the blue ribbons.  So it appears to me if I go every ten years I haven’t missed much. Since it has been about ten years, it is time for me to go this year.

  • RaleighRob
    10/09 12:16 PM

    Those pictures are quite interesting.  At one time, men wore suits to the fair and the ladies had fancy hats.  Seems it was once a classy affair.
    What happened?!?

  • Jeff
    10/09 05:35 PM

    People stopped being idiots and wearing suits to ride the bumper cars.  It’s a fair, not a funeral…  I’d pee my pants laughing if I saw everyone there on the rides in their 1900s suits!

  • Betsy
    10/10 06:54 AM

    People weren’t “idiots”; those were considered normal street clothes, and the fair was a special occasion. 

    We live in a different culture where wearing slobby clothes in public is considered normal, and people show up to festive special occasions in their everyday outfits.  No doubt those people would consider us “idiots” if they could see us.

  • Raleigh Boy
    10/10 07:52 AM

    Anybody else remember the original “Waterfall” at the fair? The standard mantra from your parents was “If you get lost, meet us at the waterfall.” It also served as a convenient trysting spot for young lovers. It looked like a castle surrounded by a moat (at least to Raleigh Boy it did). You can see it in the panoramic shot above.

  • Rex
    10/10 03:41 PM

    My father told me about how on the first Friday of the fair Raleigh school students were given a free day from class to go enjoy the Fair. My mother, who grew up in Lumberton in the 1960s, tells a similar story. If you were going to Raleigh to attend the Fair, you got a free pass from school for that day.

    Even as an educator, I think this is a delightful tradition that I would support today.

  • sally
    10/11 06:26 AM

    I grew up in Raleigh in the 60’s and 70’s and they always made sure that a teacher workday coincided with the first Friday of the State Fair. It was a particularly good practice during high school, when you knew you’d see all your friends, and maybe meet some new ones!

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