Even at 9 a.m., the humid Mississippi air hangs as thick and heavy as a sodden towel. Backstage behind the tin-roofed pavilion, M. Wayne Williams clutches his campaign speech and refills a water cup in a losing fight to stay cool.
Williams, 38, wonders whether the sweat advancing across his red polo shirt will become a torrent during his five minutes onstage.
“The biggest pressure is to get off before you fill the platform full of water,” he says, his face flushed. “It’s so hot.”
A political novice running for county supervisor, he is nervous about speaking. Williams knows it is a big moment. This, after all, is the Neshoba County Fair, an annual summertime gathering with a deep tradition of speech-making -- whether by candidates for local jobs, such as the District 2 supervisor’s job here that Williams and nine other men are seeking, or by those gunning for governor and other statewide offices. Several would-be presidents have spoken at the fair. One of them, Ronald Reagan, went on to win.
Williams, who buys property for timber farming and owns a convenience store, steps to the stage and offers the speech he and his wife worked on for more than a week. To get it closer to filling the five minutes allotted, Williams scribbled in “a few more ‘y’alls’ and ‘folks.’ ”
For more than a century, the fair has seen a long, perspiration-soaked parade of hopefuls during its weeklong summer run -- and in the process established itself as Mississippi’s premier political stump.
No serious statewide candidate would miss it, in part because this is no ordinary county fair. Here, in an unusual arrangement, thousands of fairgoers live on the grounds for a week among the 598 family-owned cabins. They are cramped, mostly bare-bones wooden cottages -- some plain, some striped, others done up in a tropical motif -- and filled to bursting with relatives and friends. Hundreds of other visitors stay in campers in a separate corner of the fairground.
The gathering, resembling a giant family reunion with a bit of Mardi Gras thrown in, converts the 75-acre fairground in the hills of east central Mississippi into an instant town. The heart is Founders Square, a sawdust-covered plaza ringed by cabins and anchored by the pavilion in the middle.
The size of such a crowd -- as many as 40,000 people, including those who stream in for the day or a few hours -- is not lost on vote-hungry politicians. Over three days this week, 74 candidates were scheduled to stride across the sawdust to make speeches in successive slots of five or 10 minutes. The speech schedule, ending today, amounts to about 10 hours of speaking before an audience that is largely white and politically conservative.
The first day, reserved for local candidates like Williams, is treated as a warmup for the marquee-worthy statewide figures. But that doesn’t diminish the stakes for hometown speakers running for everything from supervisor to school superintendent to something called a chancery clerk.
On the worn stage, with an electric fan trained at his shins, Williams’ delivery goes well. Several people chuckle when he mentions the varied chores with which he helped voters while campaigning: hoeing a garden, picking beans, snapping peas. He thrusts his right hand out to punctuate a point about the need for hands-on supervisors. His bottom-line pitch is simple: “I believe that with my conservative background and moral upbringing, I will make the right choices,” Williams says, before asking voters to stop and pray for guidance on the day of the primary balloting, next Tuesday.
One by one, the local candidates take their turns, like the midway contestants a short distance away. Mickey Cumberland, running for the same spot as Williams, takes aim at roads and bridges that need fixing. Bob Breland, another contender, says there needs to be more common sense in government. They all make sure to mention their parents and spouses, and what church they go to.
At this early hour, the audience in the open-sided pavilion is small -- about 70 people scattered among the rough wooden benches. They cool themselves with cardboard fans emblazoned with campaign logos. In the following two days, when the statewide candidates arrive, more people show up to listen. While other fairs are timed to harvests, the Neshoba County Fair matches the electoral calendar: It’s scheduled to fall during the week before primary day, which was the only vote that mattered back when Democrats alone won in Mississippi.
Fairgoers who regularly attend the speeches say it gives them a chance to take better measure of a candidate than commercials or campaign fliers do.
“Seemingly, you can look at him and see how sincere you think he is,” said Helen Sistrunk, 67, who retired from the glove factory nearby and is staying in a camper on the fairground with her husband, Lavon. “You feel more like he’s talking to you instead of everybody else.”
The stump-speech tradition has made for some colorful moments. Older residents recall the antics of Ross Barnett, the 1960s-era segregationist governor who returned often after leaving office to pluck his guitar and offer an off-key version of “Are You From Dixie?” Others remember a candidate -- though they’ve forgotten his name -- who rode in on a white horse. Live debates have been thunderous affairs, peppered with cheers and hoots. U.S. Rep. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering, a Republican who debated in front of the mostly friendly throng last summer, said entering the scene had the feel of “walking into a boxing match.”
The fair, which ends its run Friday, offers a glimpse into the traditional Southern political manners that are giving way to a modern style of campaigning -- one that rests more on television advertising and the Internet than on working the crowd at fish fries or Sunday afternoon church picnics.
“It used to be that in Mississippi you could pick any county you wanted to and spend the day going from political speaking to political speaking and eating fried chicken and watermelon,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University and a frequent fair visitor. “That’s going by the boards. The Neshoba County Fair is important in preserving that tradition in at least one spot.”
The fair began in 1889, an outgrowth of the agrarian Granger movement, as a place where farmers could show off their wares and exchange tips on growing. The early fairgoers slept under their wagons, but by the turn of the century, the first shacks began to go up. In 1896, Gov. Anselm Joseph McLaurin spoke, and the politicians never stopped coming.
Over the years, the fair has been the site of countless addresses, from the race-baiting oratory of Barnett to the playful pleadings of longshot candidate Robert “Blowtorch” Mason, a welder who asked voters to elect him governor so he could move his wife into a fancy home with indoor plumbing and electricity.
Reagan’s speech during his 1980 presidential campaign drew a crowd estimated by some at 33,000 but stirred controversy elsewhere over the location and message. Neshoba County is where three civil rights workers -- Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney -- were murdered in 1964. To critics, Reagan’s decision to make a speech here praising states’ rights was tantamount to declaring war on civil rights.
Since then, the fair has drawn presidential hopefuls from both major parties, including John Glenn, Michael S. Dukakis and Jack Kemp.
Not all here is about politics. The gathering has standard county-fair offerings -- show cattle, blue ribbons for best preserves, horse racing and the Miss Neshoba County pageant. And the rows of gaily painted, two- and three-story cabins, each measuring a compact 16-by-30 feet, add the feel of a whimsical village, with enclaves bearing names such as Happy Hollow and Sunset Strip.
Many cabins have been in families for generations and are the centers of the yearly get-togethers. For a week, 15 or more people routinely crowd under the same roof, sleeping on mattresses laid across nearly every available inch of floor space.
Some of the cottages are glorified shacks, with gaps in the walls, bare light bulbs and little relief from the heat. Others are done up for comfort, with central air conditioning and washing machines. But the cabin village remains remarkably democratic, with the rich and powerful sharing the same rough-edged accommodations as truck drivers and farmers.
The nonprofit fair association, which owns the land on which the family-held cottages sit, isn’t allowing more buildings, making the existing ones all the more coveted. They fetch upwards of $125,000, though they are used only during the week of the fair.
The fair turns many of its visitors into night owls. Some cabins host live bands on their porches, and the partying often rages into the wee hours. During quieter afternoons, people gather on the porches of cabins facing the racetrack, making friendly wagers by drawing the horses’ numbers out of a cup. But for most people, the fair is a chance to enjoy the confines of a place where the chief pastime is visiting and where everybody seems to know everybody else.
“It’s a big family-bonding thing,” said Jean Marshall, 62, who grew up in Neshoba County but drives up from Baton Rouge, La., to stay at her mother’s cabin.
Many of those porches are festooned with campaign posters, which are also plastered all over utility poles, lending the fairgrounds the look of a big political convention in this election year.
The scene is especially lively this week, as Mississippians anticipate a bruising campaign for governor between incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, and Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Both face primary opponents next week but are expected to win easily.
On Wednesday, a day after Williams spoke, Barbour and other candidates addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 who spilled out of the pavilion into the muggy sunshine. Other spectators remained on the porches along the square, relaxing on swings and fold-out lawn chairs and listening by way of the booming public-address system.
Balloons bobbed and small battalions of volunteers in campaign T-shirts handed out fans and bottles of cold water labeled with their candidates’ names. Barbour was greeted by a friendly audience, winning loud applause by charging Musgrove’s handling of the budget had left the state in “a $700-million hole.”
“At Yazoo High, they said, when you’re in a hole, stop digging,” Barbour said to hearty laughter. It is Musgrove’s turn to speak today.
Some wonder whether the fair’s speech-making tradition will survive politicians’ growing reliance on mass media. Candidates already tend to view the heavily covered fair speeches mainly as a way to create captivating sound bites and TV images.
Still, for less-celebrated local candidates like Williams, speaking at the fair is an end in itself. After receiving polite applause for his speech -- which ended at 4 minutes and 26 seconds -- he took a seat in the audience next to his wife, Marie, visibly relieved. A woman approached to congratulate him and Williams said thanks. Then he allowed himself one more wish.
“I hope it’ll be congratulations a week from now,” he said.