For 25 years, people have taken a break from the crowds and carnival rides of the midway to learn about the N.C. State Fair from Paul Blankinship, an amateur historian and the volunteer curator of the mini-museum of fair history that pops up here each fall.
Blankinship’s personal collection of photos, letters, newspaper clippings, posters and other memorabilia from the fair make up the History of State Fair exhibit in the old white schoolhouse on Heritage Circle, between the apple cider stand and Smitty’s Apples. Blankinship pulls his collection out of storage each fall and shares it with whoever wanders in.
Now Blankinship says this, the 150th State Fair, will be his last. He’s retired from his career as an oceanographer and plans to spend his falls traveling with his wife in their motor home.
“I figure 25 years is enough,” he says. “I’m ready to pass the torch to someone else.”
Blankinship’s role as unofficial State Fair historian began when he got curious about a piece of fair history in his Raleigh neighborhood of University Park, just north of Hillsborough Street, where the state fairgrounds were from 1873 to 1928. Blankinship had heard that the oval shape of Poque Street around The Rose Garden park was a relic of the old fairgrounds racetrack, but he couldn’t reconcile that with some old aerial photos he saw that seemed to show the track further east.
It took Blankinship about 10 years of visiting libraries and state and local archives and poring through old newspaper clippings to get a definitive answer: The photos showed the first racetrack that was built in 1873 and replaced after the 1921 fair. The track that gives Pogue Street its shape was only used in the 1920s.
Something else Blankinship discovered along the way was that very little about the fair’s early history has survived. The fair was operated by the N.C. State Agricultural Society, a private group, from its inaugural in 1853 until the society went bankrupt in the mid-1920s. The society’s records, which Blankinship believes would include a wealth of photos, drawings, contracts and letters about the fair, have never turned up.
Blankinship hoped that putting his growing collection on display would inspire someone to volunteer that they had a trunk full of old fair materials up in their attic, but that never happened.
Blankinship figures he spends about three weeks setting up the exhibit, being on hand each day of the fair to answer questions and then putting it all away again. Now he’s prepared to give it all to the N.C. State Archives, or as much as they’ll take, he says.
This time next year, he hopes to be out west somewhere, enjoying the fall weather on the road for a change. Fair spokeswoman Heather Overton said it’s not clear if there will be an exhibit on fair history next year. “We don’t know what we’ll do,” she said.
In 2003, the state published a book about the history of the fair by Melton McLaurin, a retired history professor from UNC-Wilmington. Blankinship contributed photos and other illustrations to the book, “The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years,” where they’ll live on after his exhibit closes for the final time this weekend.
“The book’s there for posterity,” he said.