TIME photography

LIFE Goes to a County Fair, 1938

In 1938, Alfred Eisenstaedt went to a fair in West Virginia, and -- true to form -- came back with marvelous portraits of fairgoers, performers, attractions and the fairgrounds themselves.

There’s a certain vibe to a state or county fair that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. The sights, sounds and—of course—the smells (grass crushed by thousands of footsteps; fried dough; the indeterminate, unmistakable mingled aroma of cattle, horses, poultry and people) call to mind the slowly shortening days and cooler, thrilling nights of late summer as surely as back-to-school sales and brawls at NFL training camps.

In 1938, LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt went to a fair in West Virginia, and, true to form, “Eisie” came back with marvelous portraits of the fairgoers as well as wonderfully atmospheric shots of the displays, attractions and the fairgrounds themselves. But, above and beyond Eisenstaedt’s photographs, LIFE took pains to point out that in the late 1930s, even in the country’s rural bastions, “city slickers” were finding ways to entertain themselves. In fact, in the magazine’s description of the fair and its visitors, one can hear faint echoes of contemporary conversations about “authentic” versus “ironic” Americana.

As LIFE put it in an article in the September 26, 1938, issue of the magazine:

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 . . . 100,000 paid admission to the fairgrounds near Lewisburg, W. Va. 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 America’s great harvest-time diversion a city-folk fad.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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