LOCAL HISTORY: Almost 170 years ago, Marion County was a leader in reviving Oregon fairs

Oliver Standing, 2, of Forest Grove, leans in to pet a calf at the Marion County Fair in 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As the Marion County Fair runs this weekend, Salem Reporter asked Craig Smith of the Willamette Genealogical Society for an overview of the fair’s history. View our coverage of the 2022 fair here, or see the fair schedule and buy tickets online here.

The Marion County Fair has long been a “fair” in search of a unique identity and place in the many celebrations held during the summer here in Salem. It has long competed with the Fourth of July, the cherry and hop festivals, as well as many summer events and activities in the Willamette Valley. The Oregon State Fair and the North Marion County Fairs (Woodburn) have squeezed Marion County’s Fair into the week following Fourth of July camping, beach trips and waterfront fireworks.

Every state in the union has numerous county fairs, including Oregon, where even the smallest Oregon counties have fairs. County fairs have evolved from an agricultural “show us what you grew, made or raised”. Local farmers and their families would travel to their local county seats to show their animals, fruit and vegetables, pies, cakes, crafts and hobbies. As the population became more urban and less farm-bound the county fairs introduced horse racing, rodeos, carnivals with “games of chance”, as well as booths and displays by organizations and merchants, often with barkers, each wanting increased awareness and visibility. 

In my search for photographs and historical information on the Marion County Fair, I found no historical photographs and very little narrative in Marion County newspapers, just photos in the 1990s in the Statesman Journal. Please share your stories and historical photographs with us. 

The Oregon State Fair continues to drown out the Marion County Fair story, due to the fact, that both county and state fairs share the same location and venue. Actually, the Marion County Fair predates the Oregon State Fair.

The famous American H.H. Bancroft in his two volume History of Oregon (1888) states that the 1871 Salem City Directory provides the following historical information for the start of our local county fairs:

“The counties which led this industrial revival were Washington, Yamhill, Marion and Polk. The first county fair held was in Yamhill on the 7th of October, 1854, followed by Marion on the 11th and Polk on the 12th. The exhibit of horses, cattle and fruit was fairly good, of sheep, grain, and domestic manufactures almost nothing; but it was a beginning from which steadily grew a stronger competitive interest in farm affairs, until in 1861 a state agricultural society was formed, whose annual meeting is the principal event each year in farming districts.”

The Marion County and the Oregon State Fairs were privately organized. According to historian Harry Stein, the Oregon State Fair was taken over by the state government in 1885. Indeed, the fair struggled over the years to survive on a deficit budget funded by the taxpayers. The Marion County Fair had similar financial problems after being formed by the private Oregon State Agricultural Society. Early newspaper stories mention horse racing as a means to draw crowds. I remember horse racing at the Oregon State Fair during the mid-1980s. But alas, both are now gone from the programs.

The Marion County Fair has appointed local big name citizens to its governing board to ensure competent management and financing. Fortunately, 4-H and the Future Farmers of America included all Oregon county fairs in their yearly schedule of shows. Stop in and see the momma sow with her piglets and don’t forget the miniature horses. Expanding from a very small and simple agricultural event, the Marion County Fair added a petting zoo, barn tours and flower shows to the schedule. Pretty baby contests, art and photograph contests, kids workshops, military uniform displays have happened over the years. The big crowd pleasers that did bring in revenue and save the fair financially was inviting big name celebrities and bands to perform in the fairgrounds small outdoor stadium.

Early in the 21st century, the Marion County Commissioners provided subsidies to save the Marion County Fair from a deficit year to a small surplus. The Fair is still there!

The Marion County Fair has been around for over 160 years. The key to its survival is to continue to evolve with an agenda and schedule of events that draws a paying public. If displays of Lego designs and the world’s largest pig, carnival rides and food brings people to the fair, only the challenge of promotion remains.

Craig Smith is the content editor of the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society’s “Beaver Briefs” publication and regularly contributes historial columns to Salem Reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

Editor’s note: This column is part of an effort from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter’s local history series, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

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