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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: