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25 years in a flash: Longtime vendors recall first Cumming Country Fair & Festival in 1995
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The Forsyth County News' coverage of the first-ever Cumming Country Fair & Festival in 1995. (File photo)

The 25th annual Cumming Country Fair & Festival is kicking off on Thursday, and over the course of its 11-day run will feature an entire midway of vendors and rides, two nights of concerts, likely well over 100,000 attendees and much, much more.

While there is clearly enthusiasm from the community, with more than 8,000 who have shown interest in the fair’s Facebook event, it’s hard to be more excited than those who have been there each year since 1995.

“When you come to the fair, it’s like a homecoming,” said Jim Drew, with the James H. Drew Exposition, the company that brings the rides and attractions to the fair each year. “People have been doing it so long, and hardly any fairs I know of have a cider press … and no fairs have a cotton gin. To me, that’s a big deal. That’s the stuff that the kids remember growing up. It’s unique stuff.”

Drew said that the Cumming fair began when he was a student at the University of Georgia, meaning he made the drive to-and-from Athens each day.

While this year’s fair will have a variety of rides and performances, the city wasn’t looking for as much that first year.

“It started with just doing a carousel, and then it really kind of took off from there,” Drew said. “It was a success, and as it grew, [the city] decided they wanted to have more rides and a Ferris wheel.”

Of course, no fair is complete without foods like funnel cakes, turkey legs and other foods that probably shouldn’t be eaten every day sold from a number of vendors across the fairgrounds.

Michelle Spivey, with Spivey’s Southern Grill, focuses on foods like hot dogs, turkey legs and sandwiches and tries to offer something for the whole family.

Spivey has also been coming since the first fair and said over the years, it has become one of her favorites.

“This has always been one of our favorite places to come to,” Spivey said. “The fairgrounds are really nice, the cotton gin and the wood cutting and everything is really, really neat. It hasn't changed a whole lot as far as the appearance, but there are improvements and lots of specials and stuff for kids to come out here.”

While Spivey and Drew’s businesses take them all over the state, there are some items that can only be found at the Cumming Fairgrounds, such as the apple cider press ran by Catherine Amos and her family.

The business first started in the early ’70s as a roadside stand operated by her father, Dr. Marcus Mashburn, who sold apples from his own trees or used them to make cider.

Today, the press, now ran by Amos’ son, Slate, is only open during the fair and uses apples from R&A Orchards of Ellijay. The business sells all sorts of apple products, including apple pies, apple bread and even an apple slushy.

“The cider is a unique product because it’s very fresh,” Amos said. “We don’t pasteurize ours. Ours will go hard if you leave it out because most of the cider you get now-and-days has to be pasteurized, but ours does not because we make it there fresh every day, two or three times a day.”

Since the cider will go hard – or ferment and become alcoholic – Amos said that means it needs to be consumed quickly if not refrigerated and is frozen to drink over the holidays by some customers.

During the first year of the fair, an entire day’s worth of cider was ruined when Hurricane Opal hit Forsyth County, knocking out power and causing damage across the county and forcing the fair to close for a day.

But despite the closing, the first year of the fair was seen as a success, bringing in about 43,000 attendees and featuring a musical performance from Charlie Daniels, which was held on a hill and ran off a generator before the fair’s current auditorium was built.

Amos said since she goes to the fair every year, it can be difficult to remember when certain attractions were added or moved but remembered the conditions of the first fair.

“The first year, there was no pavement and it was only for four days and it was all sawdust,” Amos said. “The first thing I would do when I got there was sweep off the sidewalks because everybody was walking on the sidewalks and everything. There were no flushing toilets. There were only porta-potties.”

Drew applauded Cumming Mayor Troy Brumbalow and other city leaders for hosting a slew of new events at the fairgrounds, which he said likely exposed more people to the fair and fairgrounds, and a new pedestrian bridge built over Castleberry Road.

“I think that bridge is a huge deal. I watched it for years be a problem, and it’s just going to be a lot better for everybody,” he said. “I know to some people it’s just a bridge, but I’m there every day and it’s symbolic. When they come down the road and look at the signs on it, [they will know] that’s a big deal.”

Drew said his business takes him all around the state and region and even to Indiana but the local fair has made rarely-seen strides since it opened.

“I mean, 25 years has kind of blown by quick,” Drew said. “In fair years, that’s fairly young. There are some fairs that have been around in this country for over 100 years and don’t have the facilities that the Cumming fair has, so think about what’s been done in 25 years.”