Southeast Missouri State University student publication

SEMO District Fair

Thursday, September 19, 2019
Photo by Jelani Days

Just when life on campus starts to feel normal after a new semester begins and the initial excitement fades, thousands of people flock to Cape Girardeau for the SEMO District Fair. And suddenly, the excitement is back. Who can really focus on college algebra when there are jumbo corndogs and carnival rides anyway? The allure of the fair is often too strong to resist.

The SEMO District Fair has been a longstanding tradition in Cape Girardeau, dating back to 1855 when the first fair was held. The Bierwirth’s farm, a wooded grove on what is now South Frederick Street, was the original location for the fair. Later, it was moved to Capaha Park for a short time before its move to Arena Park Fairgrounds, where it has operated since 1939.

No matter the location, the fair is rooted in this city’s history, but it is equally rooted in the people who have attended. The annual eight-day event brings people together from miles apart where they can share the experience with a complete stranger or reflect with friends about their home-town fairs from when they were young.

This year’s fair theme is ‘Feathers, Flowers and Ferris Wheels’ to signify the end of summertime, according to the event’s Facebook page. Each grandstand performance is different — a demolition derby one night, a beauty pageant the next and performances by big-name musicians — so there truly is something for everyone at the fair.

30 years and counting

Cape Girardeau residents and longtime friends Sherri O’Howell and Vicki Harler attended the fair on opening night, just as they have for the past 30 years.

In all those years of friendship, the women had grown close enough to finish one another’s sentences and spent the evening trading jokes and howls.

The two friends said they decided to attend the fair Saturday night because they wanted to watch the Demolition Derby. But asked about their favorite part of the fair was, both women responded in an almost sing-songy fashion, “Beer and food, food and beer.”

Harler mentioned her first time at the fair was when she was “just a little girl” and she’s come back almost every year since then.

She advised other fair-goers to try the mechanical bull ride and reminisced about the time she tried it a few years back.

“I stayed on for, like, six seconds before they threw me off,” Harler said, with a laugh.

At that, O’Howell and Harler burst into laughter, reliving that memory all over again. After catching their breath, the two women put their arms around each other and disappeared into the crowd of people and the glow of the rides.

Like mother like daughter

Community member Hali Abel said she has also been a loyal attendee of the fair for years, but things are a little different now that she has children of her own.

Specifically, she has a 12-year-old daughter, who Hali said reminded her a lot of herself when she was that age.

“Oh my gosh, I remember what I was like [at] my daughter's age,” Abel said. “And I'm like, I used to be so excited to come to the fair and just be around my friends and hang out, ride the rides.”

Abel talked about her children and reminisced about her childhood. She said seeing her daughter having such a good time at the fair really “took her back.”

Although she has children of her own now, Hali admitted she still loves the rides and still has her all-time favorite: the house of mirrors, or ‘Mardi-Gras’ as it is called at the SEMO District Fair.

Besides passing on the joy of the fair to her children, Abel said she comes back to the fair every year for the excitement, food and catching up with old friends.

Reunion at the Fair

Jennifer Stitt again made the drive from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau for the fair, as she has done for the past 13 years.

Stitt and her friends — who at this point have scattered around to different parts of Missouri — come back to the fair each year to see each other and work the beer tent, ‘Optimists for the Optimistics.’

Sometimes they are able to get together throughout the year, but since they have now moved away from each other, a get-together is getting tougher to plan. So, the fair it is.

“Me and my friends get together every year, once a year,” Stitt said. “Once a year, we always come to meet each other — this time of year like we all plan on it, like it’s a thing.”

Stitt said one of her favorite parts of the fair is the glimpse it gives her into the reunions of other friend groups like hers.

“It brings out a lot of people from the smaller areas, rural areas around us,” Stitt said. “It kinda brings us all together.”