If the N.C. State Fair gave out ribbons for longevity, Carl Beard might be a grand champion.
For 60 years – just two years less than Dorton Arena has stood on the fairgrounds – Beard has tended one of the fair’s most popular exhibits.
Under the sprawling white Poultry Tent, between the Jim Graham Building, the arena and Hillsborough Street, Beard makes sure the turkeys, chickens and waterfowl are properly watered and fed, the cages and floor are kept clean and the prize-winning birds prominently displayed.
During the fair’s 11-day run, tens of thousands of people will coo at the guineas, crow back at the roosters and study the feathers of some of the finest specimens of domesticated birds North Carolina growers can produce.
Beard, a winning breeder who raises bantams and others chickens at his home in Maiden, near Hickory, first came to help in the poultry tent in 1954, when his father-in-law, who did this work, needed an extra hand. Like the people who get hooked on the midway lights or the fried turkey legs, Beard kept coming back.
“I like to meet people, talk to people,” said Beard, 83, who offers visitors a seat on a stack of chicken feed. “I’ve made a lot of friends with chickens.”
He could travel the state showing antique tractors or specialty knives, but Beard likes birds. And nearly every weekend, he says, there is a poultry event somewhere, where breeders take a few animals, or a few hundred, for judging. The birds get a bath and a blow-dry, their beaks cleaned and their feet polished, their feathers smoothed and shined.
Carmen Parkhurst, director of the fair’s Poultry & Rabbit Division, says the Poultry Tent remains one of the most-visited attractions, despite the elimination of the baby chick-holding booth a couple years ago. Fears of bacterial contamination now make the tent a no-touch zone.
Still, the people come, so thick on weekends that it’s hard to get in. They’re fascinated by the array of birds; chickens alone come in 300 breeds and varieties in the U.S., though only three or four are used commercially to produce eggs or meat. Here, people can get face-to-face with birds in a rainbow of colors, with fluffy feet or a feathered topknot.
“We’re cheap entertainment,” Parkhurst said.