Southern Folks: Blue ribbons from the county fair for me and Elizabeth

Bill Stamps
Bill Stamps

In the early '60s, I met TV's Cisco Kid in Cleveland, Tennessee. He was in a parade. Atop his Paint horse, Diablo, he waltzed down Ocoee, waving to us kids. We waved right back and followed behind him. Cisco tied up at the Cherokee Hotel to attend a VIP luncheon and receive the key to the city. My dad was running WCLE Radio and arranged for me to be able to attend. I was 11. Cisco and I shook hands, and I got to have my picture taken with him.

The Cisco Kid was played by Duncan Renaldo. In the late '70s, I had lunch with him at a boutique café down the street from his home near Santa Barbara, California. He was in his last years and a little frail. I reminded him that we'd met in Cleveland. There was no way for him to have remembered. Still, he said, "Yes, of course." He was finishing up his life the way he got started, back to his real passion: painting. He was really good.

Duncan told a story about how he was saved from illegal immigrant deportation by, of all people, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt's wife. Several years before Duncan got into acting, Mrs. Roosevelt bought one of his paintings. She loved his work. So much so, that she convinced her husband to pardon Mr. Renaldo.

A few years after his pardon, Duncan put on a sombrero, slipped into his silver embroidered black Cisco clothes, and he and his jovial sidekick, Pancho, jumped on their steeds, into their ornate saddles and rode off down the trail to save another day.

That same sixth-grade summer, while visiting my grandmother, Miz Lena, in Columbia, Tennessee, she took me to the Maury County Fair to stand in line and meet Pancho. He was colorful. When it was my turn, Grand Mom said, "Hello Mr. Pancho. This here's my grandson, Butch." He smiled. I shook his weathered hand and got an autographed black-and-white glossy of him.

I'm pretty sure that Pancho, already into his late 70s, had had a few too many the night before. He reeked and kept falling asleep in his chair. Word spread that he got a little too friendly with some of his female fans and they cut his appearance short. Oh, Pancho!

The fairgrounds were just across a two-lane county road from Grand Mom's subdivision, Columbia Gardens. She'd bought a farm and converted it into one of the nicest housing developments in Middle Tennessee. Every home she built had her good name and personal pride on public display.

She used to say, "First time I slip up, some smart-aleck'll start talkin' out his behind about how they shouldn't oughta' allow women to build houses. My houses sell, and ain't nobody come back complainin'." Then, pointing her finger my way, she said, "Honey Baby, make shore yuh protect yore name. That's all yuh got."

Miz Lena's new house was all the way up at the top of her subdivision. It was snazzy and modern, a low-slunk, curly redwood-sided home with 20-foot picture windows up front in the living room. Juniper bushes and cedar trees were planted up next to the front porch and breezeway. Before the trees grew, you could see the entire fairgrounds complex.

It was like looking at a real-life 3D painting: big shiny-white barns with green, shingled roofs and three big bordering silos, black-and-white spotted cows grazing out front, a straight-up hill above and behind the barns that led to the picnic grounds with mature shade trees spread all the way across the hillside.

On any sunny autumn day, the red, gold and orange leaves of those trees reflected off the east sides of the fairground barns, like one of those desert mirages. More than once, Grand Mom stood in front of the living room windows, hands on her hips, and said, "If that ain't proof they's a God, I don't know what is."

Railroad tracks in front of the fairgrounds ran parallel with the county road. A little fairy-tale train rolled through in the morning and another couple of times after dark. I called it the Coco Puff Train. As the train got closer, the conductor pulled on the chain five times. It sounded like, "Puff, Puff, Co Co Puff."

In late August, the Maury County Fair was, by far, the hottest ticket in town. It was everything a kid could ask for: greased pig contests, a huge Ferris wheel, cotton candy, glazed apples on a stick, foot-long hot dogs, dizzying rides. The rides made a few kids sick to their tummies. They realized too late that they should have eaten the foot-longs after they'd held on for dear life and flown around in circles.

The vendors were memorable too. Men and women, with bad teeth and tattoos, and dressed way differently than Southern folks, hollered offerings of huge stuffed teddy bears. All you had to do was throw a ball and knock down all the pins or aim a BB gun and shoot out the middle of a target. It sounded easy enough. It wasn't. Those quarters went fast.

Every year that I can remember, Miz Lena entered her housekeeper Elizabeth's canned blackberry preserves in the county fair's competition, and every year they hung a blue ribbon on Elizabeth's jar. Grand Mom had to put the entry in her name.

Elizabeth was black, and black people were discouraged to participate. Actually, truth be told, people of color weren't welcomed to anything that had to do with the fair. It was a different time back then. It was like a chunk of goodness was missing from the hearts of white folks.

When we got back to the house, Grand Mom summonsed us all to the kitchen and ceremoniously presented Elizabeth with her prize blue ribbon. Elizabeth would very humbly accept her award with a smile and a "Thank you, Miz Lena." Elizabeth was such a gracious soul.

On closing night and way to the back of the fairgrounds, they had a private tent for grownups, really and more specifically for men. Certainly, no respectful, Southern lady would dare step foot inside that tent. There was no good reason given why I should stay away from there. I just knew that it would be trouble for me if I didn't stay away from there. Grand Mom reminded me about a cat that got killed from its curiosity.

I managed to sneak around to the back of the tent and come in through the exit. I hid behind tall men who were standing to the side of a small stage where their eyes were affixed. I kind of peeked around their legs. I got there just as the show kicked off.

The lights went down, and three colorful women, with very little on except heavy makeup and high heels, came out from behind the stage curtain and began to dance to the saxophone-heavy instrumental music coming from the speakers. You could smell their perfume, the kind that could strangle you if you whiffed too much of it. I'm pretty sure it was that rose stuff from Avon.

The men whistled and hollered out to the gyrating women. I kept still and concealed. It was my first time to see what I saw. I was mesmerized! I wondered how they were able to make those tassels twirl around in synchronized circles. Amazing! There was more to come.

Once again, the house lights dimmed. Somebody changed the record to "Ooo Poo Pa Doo" and a pin-drop spotlight shone on the parting red curtains in the center of the stage. The emcee screamed, "Gents, put your hands together for our very own Little Egypt." Just like in the song, out strutted a little red-headed woman with a bouncing bosom barely covered by two blue-ribbon bows. There were loud cheers from the audience. She smiled real big. There was a little extra lipstick on her teeth. I'm not sure what else she wore. I didn't get past the bows.

At some point, and in time with the music, Little Egypt removed the blue-ribbon bows and threw them into the crowd. One of them came down right in front of me. I grabbed it. The cheers stopped abruptly. I'd blown my cover. Some big hand grabbed me by the back of my collar. The next thing I knew, I was airborne back out the same exit flap from whence I'd entered with a baritone warning to not return.

Not too long from now, the weather will break, the clock will change and before you know it, it'll be time for the fair again. It always gets me to thinking about the summer that both Elizabeth and I took home blue ribbons from the Maury County Fair.

Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is now available in a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcover. Contact him at or through Facebook.

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