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With the return of the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair and its many traditions, local residents can once again delight in its unique array of sights, sounds, and fun. The State Fair, now in its 76th year, is a staple of the local area, a grand tradition that community members and folks from far and wide look forward to enjoying, according to Sherry Shumate, fair chairman, and Chris Atkins, amusement ride owner and member of the family that own the Thomas carnival, a prominent part of the State fair.
“The thing to remember is that even with the movements of the technology age, there are some things you can only get at a fair –cotton candy, funnel cakes, and the unique atmosphere of the fair,” Atkins said.
It’s the classic traditions of the fair that keeps folks coming back to the fair, Shumate said.
Thomas Carnival rides such as the merry-go-round, the Big Wheel, Himalaya, and Starship 4000 are staples of the fair that many community members look forward to riding each year, Shumate said.
“I remember when I was a kid, I rode the the Himalaya,” she said.
Along with the classic rides local residents can revisit, the fair, held each year at Kay Rodgers Park, also features newer rides, such as Moby Dick, and Surf’s Up Shumate said.
Jason and Jennylee Neal attended the fair for the first time with their 19-month-old daughter, Evelyn,, on Saturday. Jason Neal said his daughter enjoys the fair’s cotton candy and merry-go-round. He said although he and his wife have never been big fair-goers, as long as his daughter enjoys it, visiting the fair will be a family tradition.
The fair tradition would not be complete without the foods that give a delicious aroma to the fair atmosphere. Many of the vendors who sell these tasty treats have been doing so at the fair for decades, Shumate said.
“A tradition of the fair is cotton candy and candy apples,” Shumate said.
The king of candy apple vendors, she said, is Dennis Merigan, owner or Merigan’s Famous Carmel Corn, the origin of which can be traced back to 1929 when Dennis Merigan’s father, John, and his uncle traveled to Chicago to purchase a special caramel popcorn recipe.
“Rumor has it that it was the original Cracker Jack recipe,” Dennis Merigan said. “At the time, there were a lot of Armenians like myself who were selling caramel popcorn at fairs, and my dad wanted a better tasting corn, so he went to the big city of Chicago.”
John Merigan operated his business out of Grand Rapids, Mich., and sold his caramel popcorn at fairs and carnivals. In 1951-52, he brought his special caramel corn to the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair and remained a vendor for 10 years until he became a vendor at the state fair in Little Rock. In 1976, Merigan’s Famous Carmel Corn returned to the Fort Smith venue and has been a fixture ever since, selling caramel apples and its original caramel corn.
An important part of fair cuisine is, of course, the corn dog, and according to Shawn McKinney, his family has been selling corn dogs at the fair for 20 years.
McKinney Food Services, based out of northeast Texas, was started in 1927 and specialized in making jumbo corn dogs and lemonade. Shawn McKinney, a third-generation member of the family business, continues selling the family’s one-of-a-kind corn dog and fresh squeezed le3monade at fairs across the Midwest and some southern fairs.
“Ours are homemade corn dogs,” McKinney said. “We have our own frank recipe,. You can’t get this corn dog anywhere else.”
Located among the many food vendors is Toby Mac Bingo, which Shumate said is the longest operating vendor at the fair.
“They’ve been at the fair for 50 years,” she said. “Toby passed away, and now his son, Dennis McComak, runs it.”
Toby Mac Bingo is played in an old-fashioned manner using a bingo card and corn.
“It’s classic tradition,” Shumate said.
Although the fair is filled with many classic traditions, such as Toby Mac Bingo and The World of Wonder sideshow, Shumate strives to create new traditions by bringing new attractions to the fair, such as the Tree of Life.
Performed by Michael Shaffer of Austin, Texas, Tree of Life is performance art in which Shaffer dresses up in a realistic tree costume and moves about on stilts as a tree come to life. Standing 11 1/2 feet tall, the costume and performance is based on the mythic Green Man.
“Way back in history, people would celebrate and venerate the trees, and they would do so in the name of the Green Man, and the Green Man is the male counterpart of Mother Nature and the archetype of the Tree of Life.” Shaffer said.
When in character, Shaffer speaks to fair-goers with a voice that he said is part Sean Connery, part ancient elder.
Shaffer said fair-goers’ reaction to his costume and performance range from awe to fear.
Shaffer said his performance is designed to inspire reverence for trees and appreciation for their many contributions to the planet.
“Trees represent so much in everyday life — food,fuel, defense, oxygen –they are such an important aspect of life,” he said.
A long-standing and highly popular fair tradition are the musical acts performed in Harper Stadium at Kay Rodgers Park. Legendary musicians who have performed at the fair include Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. The tradition continues this year with concerts featuring musical acts such as the Casey Donahew Band, performing Tuesday, and Karmin, performing Wednesday. Country music start Jake Owen performed Saturday.
The fair will run through the rest of the week and end on Saturday.