Salem history moment: the first Oregon State Fair

The City of Salem Ben Maxwell collection notes that (photo id #12062):

This photo is reported to have been taken at the first Oregon State Fair in Salem, Oregon, in 1862. The five men are posed on a horsedrawn wagon. Prior to that the State Fair was held in the Portland area.

This photo is reported to have been taken at the first Oregon State Fair in Salem, Oregon, in 1862. The five men are posed on a horsedrawn wagon. Prior to that the State Fair was held in the Portland area. (Ben Maxwell collection)

While the caption for this photograph isn’t necessarily inaccurate, this caption does require some clarification. Where in the Portland area was Oregon’s first State Fair? I was excited to find that the Ben Maxwell Collection contains several documents relating to the early history of the Oregon State Fair including a document originally belonging to John Minto from the Proceedings of the Oregon State Agricultural Society at their first annual fair held in Clackamas County from Oct. 1-4, 1861.

This document explains the proceedings of the first annual fair held in Clackamas County on October 1-4, 1861. It belonged to John Minto of Salem. (Ben Maxwell collection)

The Oregon Agricultural Society was formed in 1860 and initially included nine Oregon county agricultural societies and ten county Oregon Fruit Growers Association members. This ground held their first state fair in Oregon. Cessna (Duke) Smith reports in his Oregon Encyclopedia article about the Oregon Agricultural Society that this fair was held at a location near Oregon City on the north bank of the Clackamas River. However, the title of Ben Maxwell Photo #4390 states that Oregon’s “first annual fair was in Gladstone, Oregon, 1861.” 

I was able to confirm that the first fair for the Oregon Agricultural Society was in fact held at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds, but was still unsure about their location. The Sept. 23, 1861 Weekly Oregon Statesman published an article about the fair, stating:

The first Annual Fair of the Oregon State Agricultural Society will be held on the Clackamas County Fair Grounds, near Oregon City on the 1st, 2d, 3d and 4th days of October next. We are informed the grounds have been fitted up to accommodate exhibitors and display articles that may be brought to the Fair. Sheds have been erected for stock, and a good sized building provided for articles of all kinds. 

The article goes on to explain that a mile long track has been prepared for (horse) trotting, with a prize of $50 offered for the best trotter over three years. The fare for riding the steamboats between Portland and Oregon City was reduced to one-half to encourage attendance, and the author wrote: “Everything seems to indicate a success in this first effort for a State Agricultural Fair, and it behooves the farmers and citizens generally to be on hand to move forward the interest of agriculture and other arts.”

It was challenging to determine the exact location of the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in 1861. The Clackamas County Fair includes a historic timeline, that states that the first official Clackamas County Fair was held 46 years later, in Gladstone Park in 1907, later known as the Seventh Day Adventist campground.

The Clackamas County Fair Association then bought land in Canby for a permanent location for the fair in 1909.  It’s possible that those researching the history of the first Oregon State Fair for the Ben Maxwell Collection assumed that this 1861 Oregon Agricultural Society Fair was held at this same location in Gladstone, northwest of the confluence of the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers. However, I was not able to verify this information. Instead, I found that the Weekly Oregon Statesman reported on April 15, 1861, that: “The State Agricultural Fair is to be held in the neighborhood of Oregon City, near the residence of Governor Abernethy.” George Abernathy was the first Provisional Governor of the Oregon Country, from 1845-1849. A historical marker located on the east bank of the Willamette River near the Interstate 205 Bridge marks the general location of his pioneer home. Additionally, the George Abernathy Memorial Bridge was constructed near this location and named after him. 

Given this information, the captions for both Maxwell Photo ID#’s 12062 and #4390 will be updated to more accurately state that the location of the first State Fair was near the Abernathy residence on the east bank of the Willamette River, near Oregon City. We have one additional photograph of the State Fair from 1862 (#4387) which also includes a reference to the first Fair being held in Gladstone, which will be updated as well.

The Weekly Oregon reported on June 28, 1862 that the Board of Managers for the Oregon State Agricultural Society, meeting in Salem on June 16, 1862, decided to hold the second State Fair at the Fairgrounds of the Marion County Society on the first Wednesday in October for four days.

The location near Oregon City was problematic, due to its proximity to the river and flooding. The Weekly Oregon reported on Sept. 20, 1862 that the issue of selecting a permanent location for the State Agricultural Fair was considered at the regular biennial session of the Society at their Sept. 17-18 meeting in 1862, and the Marion County Society Fairgrounds was selected as the permanent location for the Oregon State Fair, where it has been held ever since.

This year’s fair will be the 161st year it has been held in Salem.

The Ben Maxwell Collection consists of more than 5000 photographs donated to the Salem Public Library by the estate of Mr. Ben Maxwell, a noted Salem photographer and historian who died in 1967. Maxwell was a native of Salem, where he was born in 1898. He attended college at Oregon State University where he studied history and journalism. He started working with the Capital Journal newspaper in 1939. Because he packed his camera on every quest for historical stories, he was able to illustrate his articles for readers of the Capital Journal, the Oregon Journal, the Oregonian, and several magazines. 

He recorded on film at least 13 governors, old-timers now gone, covered bridges now missing, and buildings and homes no longer standing. The collection includes copies of rare early Oregon photographs taken by others which have in turn been copied over and over by later researchers and feature story writers. This collection is a work in progress and many additional photographs remain to be scanned. The collection can be accessed at:

The City of Salem’s Historic Preservation Program staff within the Community Development Department in collaboration with the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission are in the process of completing an inventory of this collection and working to confirm and verify the content and narratives associated with all the photographs in this collection. Please contact Salem’s Historic Preservation Officer, Kimberli Fitzgerald at [email protected] with any suggestions, historic facts, or questions you might have about these historic photos.

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].

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