On our trip back to the homeland, Tanya and Jay simply could not resist visiting the Oregon State Fair. For our readers outside the US, who may not be familiar with state fairs, they are a bit of a throwback to the time when America was much simpler, less-populated and more agrarian. Every state has at least one annual state fair and Oregon’s is held at the end of every summer in the state capital, Salem.
State fairs, traditionally, are a place where youngsters growing up in farm towns come to show their livestock projects and to compete with others for show ribbons and minor cash prizes. Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs encourage teenagers to develop responsibility for their chickens, pigs, cattle, rabbits and goats. Today, competition is just as keen with more exotic farm animals, like llamas and alpacas.
As a girl, growing up in the Salem area, Tanya often went to the fair. For Jay, the Washington County Fair was as advanced as he ever got, where he showed his 4-H project sheep. Jay still remembers it as a complete disaster. First, he mistakenly entered his at least 3-year old ewe, Josephine, in the yearling class. Stylishly dressed in the required white shirt and white pants, Jay proudly held on to Josephine as he took his place among the other competitors in the show ring. He still remembers the stern livestock judge examining Josephine’s aging teeth and commenting tersely, “This animal is much older than one year. Did you know that?” The inference clearly being that Jay was a complete dolt as a sheep-raiser.
Then, Josephine, apparently insulted and annoyed by the judge, decided she’d had enough of this whole business and bolted. Trying to hold onto her, Jay remembers falling into the dirt, sawdust and manure-strewn show ring, making a mess of his previously all-white outfit as Josephine determinedly ran out of the ring and around the back of the livestock barn. Getting up, he looked at the now-thoroughly disgusted judge who simply said, “Well, go get her!”
Several minutes later, Jay returned to the ring, holding on to that damn sheep. By this time, the judging of his competitors was completed and the judge simply handed Jay a pink ribbon, apparently a consolation prize for his complete incompetence. And, so ended Jay’s brief career as a competitive sheep showman at the county fair. A few weeks later, Josephine was transformed into lamb chops, or rather mutton chops, and Jay turned his interest toward other more rewarding activities.
In those days, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, county and state fairs were focused more on livestock and home crafts, such as baking, canning, quilting and flowers. There was always a carnival part of the fair, including thrill rides, cotton candy, corndogs and contests of skill in knocking over bottles with baseballs. But the emphasis was always on the products raised and produced on the farm. Now, of course, as Oregon moves more and more away from its agriculture roots, the thrill rides and entertainment are what draws people to the fair, with livestock almost an afterthought. In fact, we saw people at the fair who appeared to have never actually seen pigs and sheep close up and personal. Kind of sad in a way, but still a good thing.
As we strolled around the home crafts pavilion, looking at the displays of quilts, samples of competitive table setting and canned goods, it made us happy that these kind of activities still exist in modern Oregon. We even got a chance to chat with one of the Oregon authors at her display area. Tanya picked up a copy of the probably never to be a best-selling mystery, “Scandal at the Willamina Quilt Show.” Pretty racy stuff.
The Oregon State Fair has obviously changed over the years, which is natural. But the thing that’s most important about traditional gatherings like the fair, is that it brings people together, if just a little bit. It connects us to our shared roots and our community and helps us feel a little bit of what it is to be an Oregonian. We hope that’s the case, anyway. We hope the fair never goes away.