By Mary Elizabeth Dial
Jim Brooks received his first carnival poster in 1989 as a gift from a friend who had attended the National Hobo Festival. From there his collection grew, fueled by his lifelong love of carnivals and fairs, into a thousand-piece catalogue.
Brooks is the vice president of the Etowah County Fair Association, a group of which he has been a member for the past seven years. He also belongs to the National Carnival Historical Society and calls himself a “minor carnival historian,” but there’s nothing minor about his passion or his collection. Although he doesn’t have an exact number, he believes it includes about a thousand pieces of carnival history, including tee shirts, hats, game props, photographs of his own carnival attractions and enough posters to cover the walls of his backyard shed.
“I got into buying and selling and swapping on eBay and it just grew,” Brooks said of his collection. “I’ll take them off telephone poles. If I see them in a store window I’ll ask [for them]. Friends bring them to me.”
Brooks’ enthusiasm for fairs and carnivals was born in his childhood, when a fair rolling into town was an exciting event for a young boy. He sacrificed weekend summers to do whatever work was available, but Brooks doesn’t call it a sacrifice.
“I would have paid them to [let me] work there,” Brooks said, remembering the days that he and friends were paid $3 per hour for their labor. He was often the last man standing, the other boys having tired of the work early in the day. After working to set up the fair, Brooks would then spend his days as a participant in the fun.
“I never missed a fair if I could help it… We’d go down to the creek and sneak in.”
This childhood passion for fairs never diminished like so many others do, and Brooks has remained a faithful patron of local and state events since those early days.
“I made every [Alabama] state fair for 50 years,” he boasted. “The 50th year was their last year.”
Brooks said he is drawn to fair memorabilia because of its unique look and the nostalgia it evokes.
“I love the colors and the graphics and the artwork [of the posters],” he said, gesturing to the wall of clown and animal imagery in bright primary colors.
The posters have remained more or less the same over the years, employing the same color schemes and styles, and many lack any indication of their year, giving the museum-like room an air of timelessness.
Brooks is not only interested in carnival history, however. His position as vice president of the Etowah County Fair Association, which he has held for five years, has given him the opportunity to share his love for fairs with younger generations. He proudly announced that the 77th Annual Etowah County Fair, being held this week, is the second oldest in the state of Alabama, and encouraged community members to share in the fun.
While assenting that many traveling carnivals give customers valid reasons to be wary, Brooks asserted that well-managed fairs like the Etowah County Fair are clean, safe, family-friendly and fun places to spend an afternoon.