Submitted by Jerry Emanuel
B’nai B’rith Women & the South Carolina State Fair
All images of the South Carolina State Fair are provided courtesy of the Walker Local and Family History Center at Richland Library for educational use and remain under the copyright of The State Media Company. To see additional images of the fair, click here.
The Agricultural Society of South Carolina was organized in November 1839 in Columbia. It was also the beginning of the S. C. State Fair.
The state legislature allocated $5,000 in 1855 to the fair and erected buildings on Elmwood Street, the first site of the fair.
At the start of the Civil War the Confederates occupied the buildings, using them as a place to make war material. The buildings were burned by William T. Sherman in 1865.
Four years later, with the Agricultural Society resurrected, the legislature appropriated $2,500 annually to assist the Society and the City of Columbia rebuilt the buildings. Private donations helped create a statewide fair.
The fair outgrew the Elmwood site and, in 1904 the Society moved to the current location on Rosewood Drive. Needing still more exhibit space, the Society bought the Hippodrome Building, site of the 1908 Republican National Convention, and moved the building to Columbia from Norfolk, Virginia. That building was destroyed by fire in 1966 and was replaced by the Hampton and Ruff Buildings.
“Meet your party at the rocket,” is a familiar cry heard throughout the fairgrounds on the public address system. If one is lost or looking for someone, meeting at the rocket, which towers above the buildings, is a logical meeting place. The rocket, a Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile, was a gift to the city from the U.S. Air Force because it was named “Columbia.” It was designed by Dr. Wernher Von Braun and built by the Chrysler Corporation. The SC State Fair acquired it in 1969.
In the late 1950s or early 1960s the fair not only included food booths on the midway but other booths sponsored by eleemosynary organizations. One of those booths was sponsored by the local chapter of B’nai B’rith Women. Located near the bandstand, it catered to the carnival workers who traveled with the entertainment and food trucks to carnivals and fairs across the country. “They came to our booth because we served corned beef and brisket, salami and eggs,” said Heidi Golden. “It was good old New York Delicatessen style.”
“Many of the [carnival workers] were Jewish,” said Helen Coplan, “and they just worshipped the food...we didn’t have a kosher restaurant in Columbia so there was no place to get decent Jewish food except at the fair,” she said.
Volunteers from B’nai B’rith Women, B’nai B’rith and BBYO, the youth organization, worked the booth in some capacity. “I worked there a couple of times with BBG, B’nai B’rith Girls,” said Ilsa Kahn Young, “We were either on the serving line or cleaning up.”
The fair lasted ten days, and members of the Jewish community would cook and bake, sometimes weeks prior to the event. “Matzo Ball soup and Lentil soup were big hits,” said Golden. “I usually made several pots of chopped liver.”
“I enjoyed listening to [the carnival workers],” said Fred Fields. “They usually had some interesting stories to tell.”
Florence Berry was one of the leaders who planned and supervised the event. The primary cook was Florida Boyd, Selma Dickman‘s maid. Dickman had taught Florida how to cook Jewish. Florida was in the kitchen every day, and she would even make things “on the spot” like omelets and sandwiches. The cooks prepared the gamut of traditional Jewish cuisine.
The booth would sometimes become crowded because too many volunteered that day so they would take turns walking around the fairgrounds. “It was a pleasure to work with B’nai B’rith Women and to meet all the interesting people who stopped by,” said Delores (Dee) Friedman. There were times when working in the booth was a challenge. “When it rained on a Big Thursday, the day of the USC vs. Clemson football game, water came into the booth, sometimes horizontally, and everyone got soaked,” said Helen Silver.
“The booth was divided into the kitchen and the bar area where the prepared food was laid out,” said Judi Emanuel. “We’d be in the area where the big ice chests were located handing out drinks. We’d freeze our hands off,” she said.
Helen Silver remembers one particular incident that, thankfully, had a happy ending:
“I remember one fellow who was ‘in charge’ of the booth that day. He saw the portions we were giving and said, ‘from now on when we sell soup and knaidel (matzo balls), we only give one and a little bread to go with it.’ I did that with one of the [carnival workers] and he looked at the food and said, ‘oh, you’re charging more and giving less?’ I looked at him and said, ‘you know, you’re right.’ Then I went to Florida and asked her to give me a hot bowl of soup, two knaidlach and plenty of bread, which she did. I took it to the worker who remarked, ‘that’s more like it!”
“When I was president of B’nai B’rith Women around 1977 or 1978,” Emanuel said, “they changed the menu to include more than Jewish food mainly because preparing our normal menu was getting very expensive.”
Then in the early 1980s, the SC State Fair changed the rules and increased the rent on the booths, which made it much harder to continue. “They imposed new rules because some were not following sanitary procedures,” said Golden. “Then we couldn’t get the same booth the last few years so people couldn’t find us and that put the kibosh on it,” she said.
“As with a lot of things,” Silver said, “people started losing interest, women began working and with housework, children and other responsibilities, you can only spread yourself so thin.”
Over the years many people have worked the booth: Mary Miller, Ethel Miller, Heidi and David Lovit, Helen Kahn, Bobby and Barbara Kahn, Louis and Frances Berry, Max and Selma Dickman, Sandi and Bob Schulman, Benay Chandler, Sandy and Eddie Hertz, Frank and Barbara Bruck, Merrie and Ira Zolin, Sarah Kline and Ruby Harris among a host of other volunteers. It was a time of comradery, community involvement and dedication.
Helen Silver summed it up, “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.