The Greenbrier Valley Fair

In September 1938, LIFE Magazine wrote a cover story about the Greenbrier Valley Fair – which later grew to become the State Fair of West Virginia. The following are the pages of that article and select captions that show how different today’s fair (or at least our perception of it) really is!

IMG_0646 Life Goes to a County Fair: With 100,000 West Virginians to Look at the Bodies of Men, Women and Beasts

“The first Greenbrier Valley Fair was held just 80 years ago. The few hundred farmers who attended gaped at the wonderful Howe sewing machine and admired a stalwart yearling who grew up to become Traveller, the big gray horse who carried General Lee through the Civil War. Today, the Greenbrier Valley Fair is one of the best-known in the South. This year, from August 29 to September 3, 100,000 people paid admission to the fair grounds near Lewisburg, West Virginia. They watched the trotters race and went around looking at entries in contests for the best buckwheat, the best bread, the best begonias, the best “article made of sealing wax.”

“But their major preoccupation was bodies – human bodies, animal bodies, bodies that looked half-human, half-animal. The “girlie” shows, which were hot and smutty, drew smaller audiences than the freaks from crowds made up of farmers, breeders and hillbillies. Only a few city people were present although some urban sophisticates have discovered the county fair and are beginning to make rural America’s great harvest-time diversion a city-folk fad.”



“For the kiddies and for adults who weren’t interested in gypsy dancers, the big attractions were the twin Ferris wheels and the monkey auto race. Those who paid a dime to the races watched for little electric autos on rails run around a track with monkeys at the wheels. The monkeys just sat, however, as a man on the sidelines ran the cars.”


“The free show open to everyone who paid the 50 cent admission to the grounds, was billed as “an intricate and pleasing dance routine.” It was performed by the Polly Ann dancers who, after the show, were closely chaperoned and protected against the wiles of country slickers.”


“The daily chores of carnival life were done between performances by the Polly Ann dancing girls. Students of a Reading, Pennsylvania dancing teacher, the Polly Ann girls are all young, get $20 a week, do precision dancing in the best big-movie-palace fashion.”