Who remembers the Great South Fair?

By ELIJAH JONES,

Who remembers the Great South Fair? I do! During my school days, the annual extravaganza was held at the Great South Fairgrounds just across the Leaf River bridge, on the Petal side. 

The fair rolled into town every September, right about the time school started back, giving us students something to look forward to.

It took our minds off the fact that summer vacation was over. (Bummer.)

The Great South Fair was discontinued decades ago, but when I was a kid, we never missed "going to the fair." (Those three words were on everyone's lips.) 

The fair was in town for one week and, growing up on Fairley Street in east Hattiesburg, we didn't go just once; we'd attend two or three times. 

Fairley was the last street to run into Bouie (U.S. Highway 11) before it crossed the Leaf River into Petal. We called it, simply, the Bouie Street bridge, and it was a short walk to the fair for us, though not quite the safest.

During fair week, it wasn't just automobiles driving across the Bouie Street bridge headed to the fairgrounds. You'd see groups of kids from my neighborhood marching back and forth across the bridge, too. 

I would have been one of them, but I must admit, I was a real scaredy-cat with every step I took.

I've always been subject to vertigo when crossing bridges. The higher the bridge, the greater my anxiety. I'd get butterflies in my stomach driving across the I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans. 

Whenever I reached that part of the bridge with the giant hump in the middle, which allowed large boats to pass beneath, my palms would begin to sweat as I firmly clutched the steering wheel. 

The only good thing about Hurricane Katrina is that the I-10 bridge was so badly damaged, it necessitated construction of a new, less nerve-racking entry into New Orleans over the lake. (Whew.)

The old Leaf River bridge wasn't scary to me at all when I was riding across, with my dad driving the car. In fact, I looked forward to it. 

The old bridge, with its geometric steel trusses, was an impressive architectural marvel to this country boy. I loved the man-made wonder of the bridge, and with it came a bonus. Through its steel framework, you got a slice of natural beauty, seeing the Leaf and Bouie Rivers merging into one. 

Sadly, back in the late 1970s, the Mississippi Highway Department took the fun out of crossing the Highway 11 bridge by car. 

The old bridge of my youth, with its magnificent trusses, was torn down replaced by a faceless four-lane bridge. Worse, solid barriers were constructed, and today, instead of seeing the natural beauty of the Leaf and Bouie Rivers merging, you're stuck looking at a boring concrete wall. 

Unless you're sitting up high in an 18-wheeler, you'd never know two rivers were beautifully merging below.

The new bridge took away our view of this delightful natural wonder that belongs to Hattiesburg and Petal.

The East Hardy bridge is a virtual twin of the of the one we lost on Highway 11, its steel trusses reflecting architectural strength. 

When plans were announced for a new span across the Leaf River at East Hardy, I got a lump in my throat. Were we going to lose our other great bridge? 

Well, not if Hattiesburg mayor Toby Barker has anything to do with it. 

The mayor has come up with an intriguing idea. That is, to create a "River District" bordering the Leaf and Bouie Rivers. 

It would include parks, along with walking and bike trails bordering both rivers. Hattiesburg has never taken full advantage of our two rivers, a pair of God-given natural assets.   

To help make it work, the mayor's plan includes forming a partnership between the entities of Hattiesburg, Petal and Forrest County. An exciting part of the project includes saving the East Hardy Street bridge, making it an architectural focal point for the district.

The East Hardy Street bridge is owned by Forrest County, so saving it will involve cooperation from the Board of Supervisors. 

When it comes to saving or destroying our local landmarks, the supervisors have made some wise decisions and one, not so wise. Let's get a negative out of the way first.

Last year, supervisors approved demolition of  the Pat Harrison Waterway District's beautiful mural on U.S. 49, to make way for more convenient automobile access into Forrest General Hospital. 

As a result, we loss one of Hattiesburg's greatest works of public art. I've addressed that issue in the pages of this newspaper before, so there's no need to tarry. I'll move on, addressing what the supervisors have gotten right.

Just last month, I was one of those fortunate enough to witness the unveiling of the statue of local Civil Rights icon Vernon Dahmer. 

Mr. Dahmer worked tirelessly fighting for African-Americans' right to vote, efforts that cost him his life. 

Every bit as inspirational as his statue is the fact that it stands on the very grounds of the Forrest County Courthouse where local government-sanctioned actions were once taken to prevent blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

Here's another wise decision by Forrest County. The former Masonic Temple on Main Street is one of the most impressive buildings in all of Hattiesburg. 

In a visionary act, supervisors had the building elegantly restored, converting it into the Forrest County Justice Court building. By doing so, they preserved one of Hattiesburg's great architectural treasures. Now, let's do it again. Let's save our bridge.

Mississippi lawmakers have budgeted $15 million for the construction of a new bridge, with $1 million set aside for demolition of the old one. The Hattiesburg City Council, Petal Board of Alderman and The Forrest Country Board of Supervisors have all expressed interest in the River District project. 

Both cities, along with the county, could benefit from this plan. Of course, the Mississippi Legislature will also have to be engaged in order for the River District to become a reality. 

Forrest County doesn't want to lose the $1 million the state plans to allocate for the bridge's demolition. But what if those monies were, instead, used in preserving the structure, invested in preventive maintenance?

The plan for a River District are in its earliest stages, but the project would be a great asset for area tourism, and for us locals to enjoy as well. Several anchors are already in place. 

East Hattiesburg's Chain Park, located just steps from where I grew up, the Longleaf Trace recreational trail, and Petal's own wooded riversides would be included, along with some unincorporated parcels of county land. 

We've seen what happens when our two cities work together, the annual Fourth of July fireworks spectacular being just one example.

The event draws larger crowds each year, good news for Forrest County's two biggest cities and, of course, for the county as well.

Preserved and polished to look like new, serving as a pedestrian and bicycle pathway, the East Hardy Street bridge could be the crown jewel of a new River District. For good measure, nighttime illumination would make the structure pop. 

At night, we could do what New York City does with its iconic Empire State Building, illuminating the bridge with color for special events. 

Orange for Halloween, red and green for Christmas, gold for Southern Miss homecoming, or pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Imagine driving across the new span with a beautifully repurposed East Hardy Street bridge as backdrop.

It's early, and all these plans are still in the talking stage. Good enough; we've go to start somewhere. I'm hoping Hattiesburg, Petal and Forrest County will keep the discussion going. 

The proposed River District could be an economic and tourism boon for all of the Pine Belt.

And oh yeah, since we're on the subject, I hope we can find a way to make the Leaf and Bouie River confluence a special part of the plan. 

This beautiful natural feature should become more accessible to the public, fitting in perfectly with the Twin Forks Rising project. The joining of our two rivers is an underappreciated and underutilized natural beauty, smack-dab in the middle of metro Hattiesburg/Petal. Let's take advantage of it. 

Hey, personally, I'd like to have an easier way to see the beauty of the Leaf and Bouie rivers merging than having to walk across the Bouie Street bridge.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Drop him an email: edjhubtown@aol.com.