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Fairly rooted in state history
By Mark Baker   - 08/26/2007

The Register-Guard

SALEM - We looked and we looked and we looked, but no Pat Boone.

But, then, this isn't 1962, is it? And we're not in Texas, are we?

Probably why we didn't see Ann-Margret or Bobby Darin, either, huh?

No, this is no cheesy Hollywood movie, but it is the state fair. Our state fair.

The Oregon State Fair - in its 142nd rendition.
Whether it's in Indiana or Minnesota or Iowa - where the 1933 and 1945 versions of "State Fair" were set - or here, a state fair is a slice of Americana like none other.
Where else can you find hogs and miniature horses, cotton candy and butter-dripping corn on the cob and '70s rock bands in the same place? Where else is there a deep-fried wonderland, a cacophony of smells, from sugary elephant ears and sizzling meat, to diesel fuel and waves of manure, mixed with hair-raising rides and shameless self-promotion?

A county fair, of course. But they don't really compare. The scale just isn't as grand, the history not quite the same.

"The state fair has its own mystique because it's so big and people come from all over the state," says Wilma Doty of Salem, sitting at a tent-sheltered picnic table, having lunch with her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren.

The Oregon State Fair began its annual 11-day run here Friday near the same north Salem spot where wagons in 1862 pulled into the oak grove that still stands. Oregon was 3 years old. The Civil War was 19 months old and wouldn't end for 2 1/2 more years.

Here, though, settlers were just beginning to build new lives, to establish an identity, both individually and collectively. An identity based on agriculture, family farms and the huge plots of land on which they unfolded.

As the state began to develop, local agricultural societies were founded to discuss farming practices and resources. This led to the state's first county fairs in the 1850s, the very first being in Yamhill County in 1854, according to Salem resident Steven Heine's new "Images of America" book, "The Oregon State Fair," which came out on Monday and is filled with historical photographs dating back almost 150 years.

County fairs were fine, but others felt a state fair was needed. Thus a group of farmers united and called themselves the Oregon Fruitgrowers Association. They held the first unofficial state fair in 1858, then merged with county agricultural societies to form the Oregon

Agricultural Society, according to Heine's book, which the author, historian and poet, who grew up just a mile from the state fairgrounds, is selling at this year's fair.

The first official state fair was held between Oct. 1 and Oct. 4 in 1861 at an 8-acre site on the banks of the Clackamas River near Oregon City. After a major flood, the fair moved here to its present site in 1862. And it's been here ever since, in this place now dominated by words meant to entice.

Olde Tyme Photos. Ice Cream. Elephant Ears. Face Painting. Casey's Hot Dogs. Big Sling. Valentine's Performing Pigs. Pizza by the Slice. All About You & Me Tattoo. Haunted Mansion. Funtastic. Funtastic. Funtastic. Corn Dogs. Candy Apples. Burger Palace. Super Loops. El Niņo. Kamikaze. Super Orbiter. Tornado. Starship.

"It's kind of had to modernize to keep going," says Heine, who remembers attending the fair as a boy with his cousin in the 1960s - $3 or $4 in his pocket from berry picking. Back then, with that amount of money, the two boys "could make quite a day of it at the fair," Heine writes in his book. "We would scare ourselves to death on a few rides, have a corn dog for lunch, and always run out of money before we got into any real trouble."

Doty's daughter, Karen Wold of Beaverton, remembers coming to the fair as a fourth-grader in the mid-1970s and participating in a 4-H project. "I had a blue ribbon on my apron, I remember that. I made a dress, but the judge called it an apron," she says, laughing at the memory. "I was so upset." But a first-place winner, nonetheless.
Joining Wold at the fair are her husband, Ron, and their three children, Hannah, 2, Ali, 13, and Austin, 15, and Austin's friend, Luke Leddige. Hannah is attending her first Oregon State Fair, and chocolate ice cream covers the corners of her mouth.

"It was a part of my life," Karen Wold says, of attending the fair while growing up in Salem.

Her mother concurs. "It was just always a part of my life," Doty says, since about 1950, when she was 10, even though she grew up on a farm in Wasco County and didn't move to Salem until later in life. "It's just something you do every year."

Today, the Oregon State Fair & Exposition Center sits on 185 acres and is operated by the Oregon State Parks Department.

David Koellermeier was hired as the state fair manager in 2006 by the state parks department to revitalize the operation and the state fair.

Attendance has dropped sharply at state fairs across the nation in recent years, according to an August 2006 story in The New York Times, leading state legislatures to grapple with the question of whether to spend taxpayer dollars to keep them afloat.

"It's a classic marketing and business problem," Koellermeier told the Times. "The product that you're selling was losing appeal."

With attendance at the Oregon State Fair slipping each year during this decade, even as repair and maintenance backlogs at the fairgrounds climbed by some estimates to $18 million, according to the Times' story, Koellermeier says Friday, "We knew we were in trouble."

After making several changes, attendance climbed about 10 percent last year over 2005 figures, with about 350,000 people coming through the gates, Koellermeier says. He is hoping for another 10 percent increase this year, which would bring about 370,000 people through the gates through Labor Day.

"It's not about fixing," he says. "It's about reinventing."

Parking is now free. There are more concerts, smaller ones all over the fair. This year's theme is the "Wonders of Oregon," focusing on Oregon foods and beverages. There's a new Sports Recreation Area with, get this, snowboarding and skiing demonstrations on fake snow, beach volleyball and a rock-climbing wall meant to represent a tiny version of Smith Rock in Eastern Oregon.

Other new events this year include "Lucha Libre" (Latino wrestling), jousting and a "Northwest Best BBQ Battle" involving more than 30 cooking teams from at least 15 states.

"I really want to move toward a 'Best of Oregon' celebration," says Koellermeier, who also adds that the state parks department is considering a master plan of improvements that include beautifying the fairgrounds, adding a new wine and culinary center, a new Future Farmers of America building, a new horse barn and energy park pavilion.

Reed Vollstedt of Eugene has been to the Oregon State Fair 68 times. In a row. If it were not for the fair being canceled in 1943 and 1944 because of World War II, then Friday surely would have been his 70th straight fair.
Vollstedt, 81, who founded Eugene's Reed & Cross nursery and garden center in 1952 with his wife, Maryana, before selling it in 1979, first attended the state fair as an Albany farm boy in 1938. He brought his Duroc pig for 4-H and took first prize. "So that hooked me, I guess," he says. "And I've been back ever since.

"I just like it," he says. "And I like to get there when things are fresh. I have to go and have my hot dog, and Maryana has to have her scone."

The Vollstedts have seen the fair evolve over the decades.
He used to enjoy the horse races at the fairgrounds' track that are no longer a part of the fair. The price of admission has gone up and not only were there no long-past-their-prime rock 'n' roll duos such as Heart - who rocked the L.B. Day Amphitheatre Friday night - playing in 1938, but Nancy and Ann Wilson hadn't even been born yet.

Changes aplenty, yet the sense of community, of commonality, is still here. Not to mention the pigs.

"You think it changes, but it really continues on the same," Vollstedt says.

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