“House of No Mo’ Bats”

“House of No Mo’ Bats”

The fragrance of all things fried hangs in the air, and hundreds of colorful, multi-storied cabins clutter the landscape. All across the sprawling acreage, privately-owned cabins display flags, family names, lights, and a variety of signage. Porches are full of coolers, toys, and people on benches, chairs, and swings. Greetings are exchanged between both familiar faces and strangers, mixed in with the constant ebb and flow of passersby. Music from the Midway and the muffled sound of speakers from the grandstand permeate the landscape. It is hard to tell where one cabin ends and the next begins, lines of color and light and movement stretched across the red dirt. These are the Neshoba County Fairgrounds.

A view of cabins along Sunset Strip, one of the fair "neighborhoods. Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

Beginning in 1889 as the Stock and Agricultural Fair, the Neshoba County Fair is a week-long annual event that takes place each July in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Nicknamed “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” the Fair involves a variety of events including carnival games, livestock shows, horse races, and political speeches. From exhibit halls to front porches, people engage in an exchange of political, agricultural, and social knowledge and ideas. Perhaps the most striking visual element of the Fair is the vast array of cabins that occupy its grounds.  

Today, there are over 600 of these permanent structures adorning the fairground that serve to house fairgoers for one week every year. Most cabins belong to individual families, and the property deeds are passed down in wills. Displaying different degrees of ornamentation, these cabins embody each family’s particular aesthetic through such things as paint colors, façade styles, lighting elements, and wall decorations. Even the largely unadorned structures seem to have at least some element to announce its individuality.

The "chair race," when fairgoers make a dash to claim the best spots for the evening concerts. Photo by Holly R. Owens

 

When asked to define the Fair, members of the Bledsoe family are clear on one thing: it is a family reunion.

 

Cabin number 154 belongs to the Bledsoes and is the prime locus for social activity. Throughout the day, people move in and out of the cabin door, traveling from the kitchen table to the porch to the Midway and grandstand and back again. When asked to define the Fair, members of the Bledsoe family are clear on one thing: it is a family reunion.

Kate Bledsoe Spencer describes it in this way:

It is usually the one time a year my three children hope to see all of their cousins and aunts at least for a few days. When they were young, the Fair was an opportunity to spend a week with their grandmother, aunts, sometimes uncles, cousins and extended family and friends.

Members of the Bledsoe family in the dining area of the cabin, circa 1994. Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

As Megan Young DeLockery describes it:

[T]he Neshoba County Fair is my favorite place on Earth! It is often dirty, hot, and crowded. It usually takes just a few hours for family members to start arguing or getting on each other’s nerves. But, it is the place where my soul recharges every year. There is something about being surrounded by family, even when they drive you crazy….

Displaying different degrees of ornamentation, these cabins embody each family’s particular aesthetic through such things as paint colors, façade styles, lighting elements, and wall decorations.

Similar to its neighbors, Cabin 154 is a two-story wooden structure with a front porch, but it stands apart with its bold paint color and larger-than-most side porch that is cluttered with tables and chairs, ready for card games and people watching. Inside the cabin, the downstairs displays a “hodge-podge of various decorations and memories,” including picture collages and assorted signage. The upstairs of the cabin consists of two rooms filled with bunk beds that can sleep up to about twenty-seven people.

Since its purchase in 1988 from the original owners, the Ab Davis family, Cabin 154 has undergone several renovations.

Describing some of these cabin updates, Kate shares:

When we shared a cabin with the Yates family, we had no hot water or air conditioning.A few years after my daughter [Courtney] was born, we added hot water. The one thing we were concerned about when we bought the new cabin was that it was air-conditioned. We thought it would ruin the true atmosphere of the Fair. It didn’t take us long at all to decide sleeping in the cool upstairs was a good thing.

Continuing with this idea about what is considered appropriate for the Fair “atmosphere,” Megan shares:

In my opinion, a Fair cabin is supposed to be kind of rundown. The whole point is that you are stepping away from modern society back to a different, simpler time...Other cabins, especially some of the totally redone cabins on Founder’s Square, have central A/C, dishwashers, washers, dryers, etcetera. No! One of my very favorite parts of the Fair are the window units. You freeze to death at night and need lots of thick blankets, but the sound of a window unit is so unique to the Fair, in my mind.

My aunt [Jodie] that passed from cancer’s favorite color was lime green, so we used that as an accent, and we put up pink lights in memory of her.

Along with upgrades such as hot water and window units, there have also been updates to the exterior of the cabin. Although the cabin was originally brown, today it is painted blue with green trim and porch railings. The original brown pressboard wood panels that characterized the cabin’s facade were acquired by the patriarch of the Ab Davis family who worked at the Weyerhaeuser plant outside of Philadelphia. Davis was able to acquire “seconds” from the facility to reduce the cost of construction of the cabin. In 2011, the then Bledsoe family matriarch, known to her family as Mamain, decided that the cabin should be painted.

Nancy Bledsoe Zwiers shares:

[J]ust months before my mother passed away, she decided she wanted to paint the cabin. Unfortunately, my mother became bedridden before the cabin was painted and never got to see it in person. We did, however, take pictures of the freshly painted cabin so she could see the amazing transformation from dull brown to bright blue with neon green trim.

(left) Exterior of Bledsoe family cabin 154 in 2010. Photo by Kate B. Spencer (right) Cabin 154 in 2014 with new blue exterior. Photo by Elizabeth Howe Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

Noting the appearance of other Fair cabins and how those influenced the process of updating Cabin 154, Megan explains:

Part of why we wanted to redo the outside was to look more like other Fair cabins. Fair cabins typically are brightly colored, often with a theme of some sort. There is a red ‘Coke’ cabin next to ours, a green and yellow BP cabin down the way, and a red, white, and blue Ole Miss cabin. It is more important that cabins be bright and decorated than traditionally attractive. This isn’t your house; it is your one-week-a-year party cabin!

A nighttime view of the porch. Photo by Elizabeth Howe Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

From this description, it is clear that the visual and aesthetic success of a cabin depends on its vibrancy and ornamentation rather than on its adherence to any kind of norm. When asked how the paint colors were selected, Courtney Bledsoe responds:

 It was a long family discussion, with lots of arguments, but finally we came up with something that everyone likes. We are huge Duke fans, so we liked the Duke blue. My aunt [Jodie] that passed from cancer’s favorite color was lime green, so we used that as an accent, and we put up pink lights in memory of her.

While the exterior structure and style acknowledge the aesthetic expectations of the neighborhood, the exterior and interior decorations display the family’s more personal choices.  

The Bledsoe women concede that the porch and dining area are the most important social spaces, so it makes sense that these areas would also be the most meaningfully decorated. On the exterior walls of the cabin, there are brightly painted wooden signs in the shape of Christmas lights on which the names of each family member are inscribed. Additionally, there are two signs that bear the Bledsoe family name. One is a wooden sign that bears the Bledsoe name, and the other is a green metal sign that reads, “Bledsoe’s House of No Mo’ Bats.”

There is one family story that is most prominently represented in the ornamentation of Cabin 154. In the summer of 1988, the Bledsoe cabin experienced a bat infestation that lasted several summers despite attempts to get rid of them. According to the family, there were hundreds of them in the walls and under the roof.

Described as a “very iconic moment” for the cabin, Megan says:

 I was too young to really remember anything about it specifically, but literally, there would be bats flying inside the Fair cabin!

In more detail, Kate describes the scenario:

...There were hundreds of them. We tried many methods to get rid of them. We tried filling all holes in the walls and different types of sprays. We found that an adult bat can get through a hole the size of pencil eraser. We tried covering the cabin with plastic, so the bats could not get back in once they left at night. Nothing worked….

Two signs that hang under the porch eaves. Photo by Elizabeth Howe Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

Nancy adds:

[T]hose [bats] that didn’t leave at ‘show time’ the day we tacked down the screening were forever trapped inside the walls of the cabin.  No doubt they starved to death and we couldn’t have been happier.  At this point, my sister [Jodie] officially dubbed our cabin the ‘House of No Mo’ Bats,’ with a green, night-glow street sign she had made to hang on the side of our cabin.  To this day, the first thing we hang each year is that green ‘No Mo’ Bats’ sign.

This story, perhaps more than any other, has influenced the Bledsoes’ cabin décor and reputation. In the kitchen, there is a sign with a bat logo that was given to the family by a woman who remembered Cabin 154 as the “bat cabin.” The cabin also boasts another bat-related decoration, a needle-point “Fair Prayer” that details a “makeshift bed with a person covered from head to toe with a quilt.” It reads, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I’ve covered my body from head to feet, If the bats should fly before I wake, I pray dear Lord it’s not me they take.” Aside from a few instances like the bat infestation, most Fair memories are made up of smaller moments, although hardly ever quiet ones.

As Courtney explains:

It’s where family and friends that only see each other one week a year are able to find out about each other’s lives and bond in a very special way.

A 1998 photo collage that hangs on the cabin wall. Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

One way this happens in Cabin 154 is through the creation of a photo collage. Every year, members of the family gather around the kitchen table to sift through photographs from the previous year to include in a collage. Some photographic moments are recreated annually, such as a group photo of the grandchildren on the cabin steps. Other photos document the family in various Fair settings or new visitors. There are so many collages now that some have been moved to the walls of the stairwell. Through acts and displays of cabin decoration, one can understand how memory and narrative are evoked through object.

It’s where family and friends that only see each other one week a year are able to find out about each other’s lives and bond in a very special way.

For members of the Bledsoe family, the Neshoba County Fair is anticipated in the same manner that, according to Courtney, “a child wait[s] for Christmas.” The Fair is a time and place for which the family starts planning months in advance, including what meals will be cooked and who is going to be there. The Fair is also “significant with memories” of people the family has lost.

As Megan shares: 

The Fair reminds me of Jodie and Mamain and keeps them alive to me—I always expect them to walk in the door.

With a variety of experiences, there are still shared elements and stories, such as the “House of No Mo’ Bats” tale, that manifest in a cohesive yet varied assemblage of decorative symbols and elements. As a place and time set apart—place to gather, a time together—the Fair is something people eagerly await and is a topic of discussion throughout the rest of the year.

As Kate notes: 

The Fair is a time once a year we know at least some family will be together. There are friends at the Fair who have become family over the years. We keep in touch through the year and make sure our visits to the Fair will be at the same time.

Annual photo of the grandchildren on the cabin porch stairs. Photo by Nancy B. Zwiers Courtesy of the Bledsoe Family Photo Collection

Megan explains:

It is such a welcome pause from everyday life...The Fair is my roots. The Fair is family and Mississippi, and red dirt and good food, and a slower pace and a focus on the most important things in life.

As the week comes to an end, the dust settles on the racetrack and the lights of the Midway dim. Cabin decorations are taken down, and families and friends say their goodbyes, load up their cars, and drive away. But with the closing of the Fairground gates, comes the happy realization that there are only 365 days until it comes around again.

 

 

Many thanks to the Bledsoe family, especially Nancy, Kate, Courtney, Megan, and Elizabeth, for their enthusiasm and willingness to share Cabin 154 and their memories, experiences, and photographs of the Neshoba County Fair.

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Sydney Varajon

Sydney Varajon

Sydney Varajon is a folklorist trained at Western Kentucky University. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Folklore and English at Ohio State University. Sydney has worked on various cultural documentation projects, including architectural surveys, a tri-county cemetery survey in East Tennessee, and a successful nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Her research explores the intersections of material culture, place studies, narrative, and cultural policy.