It began as a simple quest by a history buff to learn more about the location of his house in Raleigh.
But that initial inquiry in the 1970s turned into much more for Paul Blankinship, who has now spent years of his free time researching and documenting the history of the N.C. State Fair. Since 1993, Blankinship has shared his findings with visitors to the fair in an old white school house not far from the John Deere ice cream building. He is is an oceanographer by trade, having earned a master’s in physical oceanography at NC State in 1975, but Blankinship is also the official historian of the N.C. State Fair.
“The more I looked into it, it branched out into a bigger quest,” he says.
That quest began by looking into the days when the State Fair was located just across Hillsborough Street from what is now NC State. Blankinship lived on Vanderbilt Avenue, and was intrigued when he learned that it had been part of the state fairgrounds until the land was subdivided and sold at auction in 1926. The fair moved to its current location in west Raleigh in 1928 after not being held for a couple of years.
The fair was originally located about one mile east of the state Capitol, staying there from 1853 until 1872. It moved near Hillsborough Street in 1873, some 14 years before the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts was established in 1887 and 16 years before the new college opened its doors to students in 1889.
Blankinship, who now lives in Oak Island, N.C., says he doesn’t think it was a coincidence that the new college was located adjacent to the fair, which was run by a private group that was charged by the state legislature with promoting modern agricultural practices.
Two of Blankinship’s most exciting discoveries were a pair of aerial photos, one that offered a birds-eye view of the fairgrounds in 1919 and another from 1932 that enabled Blankinship to see what his neighborhood looked like in its infancy. They are both on display in the Rhodes School, a one-room school house from Lizard Lick, N.C., that is now home to Blankinship’s collection during the fair.
This year marks Blankinship’s 20th year exhibiting at the fair, where his visitors range from fellow history buffs to those who exit quickly as soon as they see that the building houses a collection of old photos.
“I have groupies,” he says with a smile. “They come in every year and ask me, ‘What’s new?'”
The answer to that question this year involves some research that Blankinship has done into a visit President Teddy Roosevelt paid to the State Fair in 1905.
In 2003, Blankinship co-authored a book, The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years, that had become one of his goals as he got deeper into the history of the fair. “That was one of the brass rings out there, to see the book published,” he says.
Even though it’s not always convenient, Blankinship keeps returning to the fair each year to talk with anyone interested in the fair’s history. He does it, in part, in the hopes that someone will show up with a treasure trove of information about the fair that they found in “granny’s trunk.”
“I haven’t answered all the questions I have yet,” he says.