A Personal History of Clinton and Sampson County–Circus and Fairs

By James Ingram Reynolds (1906-1996), edited by Joel W. Rose

james reynolds

I was never able to ascertain the date of the first fairground in Clinton, but according to Mr. Ferdie Johnson, it was located in the new section of the Clinton Cemetery that borders Elizabeth St. It ceased its operation sometime between 1885 and 1887 and moved to that area near the train depot at Wall and John Streets. One of the attractions of the fair was the 1/3 mile racetrack. Faison Pierce had a wagon pulled by four goats that circled the track and he rode on one of the goats.

The next fairground was the Sampson County Fairground which was located where the hospital stands today on Beaman Street. It was built in 1916 and had a racetrack ½ mile long. It closed in the 1930’s. The Sampson County Fair was very popular and some say second to only the State Fair in Raleigh.

In 1899, a circus came to Clinton and set up in the field near the train depot. Pedestrians had to cross over a deep ditch on a twelve inch board to get to the circus ground. During the performance, a lion got out of his cage which caused a wild scramble by folks to get away. Many fell into the ditch while trying to escape over that single board but a blind man, Mr. Joe Butler, leading his wife who was also blind, made it across quickly and safely. It was also told that a very large man by the name of Preston Cullen, who weighed about 290 pounds, just pushed everyone aside in his scramble to get away. A woman with a baby in her arms begged him to save the child, but he pushed them both aside and said “Lady, this is no time to bother with children, the lion is out,” and then he proceeded to climb into a small tree. Gus Smith, a local man who carried the mail from the depot to the post office for years, had a house near the circus grounds. It was told that so many people ran into his house to escape the lion that it was said that only half of them could inhale while the other half exhaled.

Many times the traveling shows and circuses did not use the railroads as their means of transportation. Instead, they had wagons pulled by mules, and sometimes elephants pulled them as they traveled the highways. I remember when I was a very small boy there was a circus coming to Clinton from Wilmington, and down at Taylor’s Bridge community, there was a wooden bridge. When the elephants got there to start to cross it, each time the elephant approached the bridge, he would place his foot on the bridge. If he was able to shake it, he would refuse to cross the bridge. So instead, the elephant was led down to the water, wade through the stream and come up on the other side. The circus line would reform and travel on where they needed to go.

The Southern Tavern

The Southern Tavern, as pictured in 1938, was a popular stopover for travelers. It later became a “hotspot” for the younger crowd. It was located in the same vicinity as today’s U-Care facility at the bottom of the hill on Beamon Street.

Also, during those bygone days, people didn’t have the means of entertainment that they have now, so they had to rely on other things. Among those things were the expert horse, mule, and bull riders that would tour around the country. They would advertise it in advance that they would be here on a certain day and could ride anybody’s mule, horse, or bull that was brought to them. Large crowds would assemble at the appointed time, and I’ve seen many a good rider thrown. My blood brother, Alton, who was born in 1903, was one of the better riders of this locality.

The first airplane that I ever saw fly was landed here in the Sampson County fairground. It was about 1916 or 1917 and it was a tricycle landing gear type of Pusher Biplane. The engine was sitting between the lower and top wing and the only fabric on it was on the wings and tail surface. The fusillade did not have any covering on it. The pilot sat way out in front just above a little wheel and he wore a heavy flight suit, helmet, and goggles. If you’ll recall, this was less than 15 years after the Wright brothers made their first flight.

Naturally the airplane created a lot of excitement, but one of things that I remember so vividly is that each time just before he took off, the pilot would get down on his knees in front of everyone and say his prayers, because I imagine that he, like anyone else, would not have been too sure that he was going to make it back safely.

From time to time there would come barnstormers, and they’d also haul passengers to make money. But the first established airport that ever was in Clinton was started by my brother, Joe Reynolds, the druggist. It was located on that strip of land on Highway 701 north across from the Triangle Automobile dealership. After WWII, Joe sold the airport to R.A. Naylor, and R.A. continued to run it until Sampson County started its own airport west of town, at which time Mr. Naylor went out and took over the operation there.

The first public swimming place that I ever knew to be in Clinton was on the west side of Beaman Street as you go down to what was known as the Southern Tavern. It was directly across from the old Bob McCullen home place. It’s all grown up now but you can still go out to the edge of the woods just a little ways and the remains of this cemented wall swimming hole is plainly visible to this day. Later on there was a much larger public swimming place erected by the town of Clinton, this one further down Beaman Street directly across from the Southern Tavern. But this has since been disposed of and later on Mr. Bob and Dave McCullen operated a saw mill on this property.

Sparks Circus

When the Sparks Circus came to Clinton in October1899, a lion escaped creating pandemonium for the locals.


The Sampson County Fairgrounds on Beaman Street was a popular attraction for many years. It was said that the Sampson County Fair was second only to the NC State Fair in popularity. The fair first opened there in 1916 and eventually closed sometime in the late 1930s. It even included a racetrack. The fairgrounds were located in the same area as where Sampson Regional Medical Center sits today.