Cell Phones Have Become A Part Of Fair Life

Donna Hunt likes trading in her high-tech world every year for a cabin in Neshoba County where there are no telephone jacks.

"I like the fact that for one week my kids are not into computers,'' Hunt said. "They're not into PlayStations. They're not into cell phones. It's just like it would have been if you could go back.''

But there's no getting away from cell phones - not even at the 113-old Neshoba County Fair.

"Everybody here walks around with a cell phone and is always talking about something,'' said 17-year-old Leigh Jones.

She had her Nokia tucked in the pocket of her jeans. Family and friends return yearly to the fair and its 598 cabins in the red clay hills of East Mississippi. They share good food and old stories. Few modern amenities are available. Air conditioning was only added to many of the cabins within the past decade, and some fairgoers griped about it.

The cell phone though has managed to carve out a spot in the Neshoba County Fair without much objection. Near the carnival rides, a saleswoman for Nextel and SunCom said she's sold lots of phone accessories at her booth.

"Kids love these things,'' said Ellen Jackson, who was at the fair for the first time. "Some of them come by and say I want a face plate and don't even have phone. We've sold quite a bit.''

Cell phones have become so common on fairgrounds that this year BellSouth stopped installing temporary pay phones in the 15 to 20 booths on fairgrounds.

"They started fazing them out last year,'' said Doug Johnson, manager of the Neshoba Fair Association. "We really had to do some arm-twisting to get them back. Lots of people have come up to me asking about the pay phones.''

Three years ago, board members of the Fair Association brought in temporary cell towers. Three cellular companies have lease agreements with the Fair Association.

"You used to have to go stand upstairs in one of the cabins and lean out to get good reception,'' Hunt said, craning her neck to find the signal on her imaginary phone.

While fairgoers get better reception, the fair gets phones and pocket change. SunCom pays $750 to place a temporary tower on the ground. CenturyTel pays a year-round $1,200 fee for its permanent tower that serves customers in the Philadelphia-area when the fair's not in town. Cingular lends the board members 18 phones with unlimited calling. Johnson said the phones are helpful with keeping in touch with board members and in dealing with emergencies.

"Everything's so much quicker with cell phones,'' Johnson said. "If a board member's all the way across the fairgrounds, you can meet him halfway.''

But, for some, the pocket-sized conveniences aren't worth the price paid in lost nostalgia.

"A lot of people say, 'Well, there goes the fair!''' Johnson said. "But that's just modern progress whether we like it or not.''