Everyone in Edgecombe and Nash County is looking forward to October when The Rocky Mount Fair begins. It is the fair, after all. The rides, food, exhibits and animals all make for a great time.
No one is more excited, or anticipates that day more, than Norman Chambliss, III. 2010 represented the 31st year that Chambliss has run the Rocky Mount Fair, and the 77th year that a Chambliss has run the fair. “My granddad started running the local fair and then a whole bunch of them.” Chambliss explained. “It was a hand-down from generation to generation; my Granddad to my dad, then my dad to me.” Explains Chambliss, ”I’m not a professional ‘Fair Guy’, runner, operator; nor was dad; but my granddaddy; that’s what he did. That was primarily his profession, running county fairs, car racing and so forth. I would expect there is not another fair anywhere that is being run by a grandson of a person who started that particular event over 77 years ago.”
His father, Norman Chambliss, Jr., tells the story this way. “My dad came here from Virginia as secretary to the Coastline Railroad general superintendent, then went to work for The Planters Bank. He worked there many years as a public relations man. That means he worked with the Battles and the Braswells, and they just about ran the town. They owned the fairgrounds out at the end of Tarboro Street, where Oakwood Shopping Center is now. Daddy was the promoter-type. Mr. R.R. Gaye and the Braswells owned the fair and they asked daddy if he would run it for them; and he did, and did very well with it. He did so well with it, and this was during the depression, that Governor Ehringhaus called my dad to come to Raleigh and said, ‘Norman, we want to get out of the fair business and we want you to take over the state fair.’ Dad said, ‘I can’t afford to do it’, but he lined up with a man named George A. Hamid from New York, who was a very wealthy man in outdoor amusements, and they formed the North Carolina Fair Operating Company. They took over the state fair and ran it for many years. They ran seven fairs, including fairs in Rocky Mount, Raleigh, Greensboro, Salisbury, Greenville, and Elizabeth City.”
“Then along came Bill France.” Chambliss, Jr. continues, “We were having regular open-wheel automobile races in Greensboro and a man was there who talked to dad, and dad finally told him, rather abruptly, “Wait until the race is over!” That man turned out to be Bill France. I heard my dad in the office up there in Greensboro say, “Stock Car Racing? What in the hell is stock car racing?” Bill France wanted dad to start stock car racing, and they did. They did stock car races all over this state. People don’t remember that anymore, but that is how it really started.
“Dad got older, like I have, and the town took in the fairgrounds and zoned it out of business. So I bought the land out on 64 between here and Tarboro and built a new fairgrounds so my dad could continue it. When he died, I ran it. Norm (III) was in school and he would come down and help me. I never was a real fair promoter, but I kept it going. Norman (llI) took over and he is more like his granddad- He says he’s not, but he is, and he has done very well with it.”
“Dad handed it off to me in 1979.” Chambliss (III) said. “That was the first year that he looked at me and said, ‘You’re in charge. You call the shots.’ It was his business. I started working out there as a little boy walking around behind the electrician with a box of light bulbs, and he would reach in my box and then plug them in and screw them in the hole. Every one of us did that. I don’t know anything but my family running the fair. I thought everybody’s family ran a fair when I was little boy.”
According to Chambliss, what makes the New Rocky Mount Fair so unique is its look and feel of a ‘true old county fair’. It is one of the only open exhibit facilities in the state. “You do not have to go inside of a building to see our exhibits. You can view them by walking under a covered porch way and they are open to everyone, therefore they get much more exposure. The interesting thing is that they are in a ‘U’ shape, with the entertainment and food operations going on inside of the ‘U’ so that the exhibits are always visible, kind of on the horizon behind everybody, so you are always at the fair.”
One thing that has not changed over the years is that “Kids love the fair”, says Chambliss, as his father nods in agreement. “Parents will call me over and point at their child petting an animal and say, ‘that is the first time that he’s ever seen a farm animal up close in his life.’ It is a wholesome environment. “The horticulture and the clothing and the art work and all of that are right there hanging in front of everybody. It is a nice fair all done with local people. 4-H, stitch and homemaker groups, the economics teachers in the high school, the community colleges, everybody has a role at the fair. If you took everybody who is involved out there and put them in a facility, you would be very surprised at how many people it takes to put that thing on.”