Although the Oregon State Fair has long been
considered the annual summer-time event in Salem, the fair
actually had its modest beginnings at Oregon City in the year
1861. Oregon had not achieved Statehood when, in 1858, The
Oregon Farmer began agitating in favor of a State Fair. Two
groups, the Oregon State Agricultural Society and the Oregon
Fruit Growers Association, eventually merged and took on the
task of creating an Oregon State Fair. Through their efforts,
the first fair opened near Oregon City on the banks of the
Clackamas River, in early October, 1861.
The State Legislature offered no financial
support, but the four-day event boas-ted 142 exhibitors in
nine classes, including sheep, swine, poultry, plowing im-plements
and machinery, and domestic manufacturers. There were
vegetable and fruit exhibits and equestrian competitions as
well, and 268 premiums were awarded. This first fair
was essentially a harvest festival, and attendees enjoyed
visiting, dancing, and horse racing. Some local ministers
urged a boycott be-cause of the horse racing, but this seems
not to have affected attendance. With the young state still
largely unsettled, the fair offered a rare opportunity for
far-mers to visit and share information.
Though that first State Fair was not, financially speaking,
a resounding success--it broke even--enthusiasm was strong,
and organizers immediately decided to hold a second fair the
following year. They also realized that a larger site was
The Fair Comes To Salem
On September 18, 1862, Marion County was chosen as the
site for the second State Fair, in part because of its closer
proximity to the agricultural center of the Willamette Valley.
A parcel of eight acres, three miles outside the city of Salem,
was donated by John Savage, who had homesteaded the property.
John Minto contributed $1,200 to build a wooden fence around
the grounds. New events were added, including canning, quilting,
and baking and, once again, response was positive.
In 1863, the Fairgrounds were expanded with
the purchase of 80 additional acres from David and Margaret
Ridout. In 1864, the Oregon Agricultural So-ciety purchased
the Fairgrounds and agreed to hold the fair at that location
for the next 15 years. Five-and-a-half additional acres
were added in 1865, and 70-1/2 more in 1870.
The fair grew steadily during its early years, as new exhibits
and attractions were added. In 1877, fairgoers were invited
to see two of the latest inventions, Tho-mas Edison's gramophone
and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone.
The State Takes Over Fair Operation
The State of Oregon took over the fair in 1885, when the
State Board of Agri-culture was formed. It consisted
of eight Oregonians, appointed by the Gover-nor, and the four
members of the Oregon Agricultural Society. The State Board
of Agriculture was required to hold an annual State Fair;
given the power to re-gulate the fair, and required to make
an annual report to the Governor. The State Legislature was
directed to allocate $5,000 annually for premiums.
In 1893, the State spent $11,000 upgrading and renovating
the buildings and grounds, including new water and drainage
systems, an enlarged floral garden, and the addition of a
mile-long racetrack. In 1895, the fair was extended
to ten days. William Jennings Bryan visited the fair
that year, making a speech about the necessity of buying local
products--he himself purchased two Salem-made blankets. By
an act of the 1897 Oregon Legislature, the Fairgrounds became
property of the State of Oregon.
Admission To The Fair Increased To 26 Cents
With the new century, the improvements and additions
continued. While horse racing and livestock exhibitions were
still mainstays of the fair, other events were added: the
lumber and dairy industries began to be featured along with
the tradi-tional agricultural exhibits. Circuses and band
concerts became popular features of the fair. Streetcar service
to the fair became available. Twelve new livestock barns were
added and, in 1906, admission increased from 25 cents to 26
cents; the fair cleared $20,000 that year.
No fair was held in 1905 due to the big Lewis and Clark Exposition
in Portland that year. On display at the 1910 State Fair
was another new invention, the airplane, the first many fairgoers
had seen. The fair continued through the years of World
War I, continuing to operate during those years, and an auto
and trac-tor show was added in 1918.
Automobile Changes The Fair
The years 1920-1940 saw a marked increased in participation
from beyond the Willamette Valley, due largely to the ascendance
of the automobile. During its early years, many families had
camped out for the duration of the fair, with as many as 3,000
people camping in tents and wagons near the grounds. The dawn
of the automobile age changed this: faster transportation
meant visitors could stay a day or two instead of an entire
week, and also that participants could truck in their animals
instead of herding them to the fair. The automobile also made
possible wider participation from around the state. Where
previously, participants had come mostly from the Willamette
Valley, now the event became truly a State Fair.
The fair continued to expand, gradually growing
from its agricultural beginning to include automobile displays,
concerts, and movies. A new boys' and girls' club building
was added, and a first aid station. The Salem police took
over patrolling the grounds when the Fairgrounds were annexed
into the City of Salem in 1921. In 1927, the fair began
operating on Sundays--although no horse racing was allowed
on the Sabbath: it was replaced by sermons and vaudeville
acts. In 1929, a new 6,500-seat grandstand was added at a
cost of $150,000.
With the country in the throes of the Great Depression,
admission was reduced from 50 cents to 25 cents in 1933. Parimutual
betting was introduced to the fair that year, and opening
day was moved back to Labor Day, to take advantage of the
holiday. 1934 marked the centennial of Jason Lee's arrival
in Salem, and the fair celebrated with a caravan re-enacting
his journey westward. The wagon train left Boston in April
and arrived in Salem in time for the fair. The old atten-dance
record was shattered that year, when more than 180,000 visitors
flocked to the fair. A 1-1/3 mile racetrack was built,
and an Indian Village added, populated by members of the Snohomish
Tribe of Washington. In 1939, a 5,000-animal stock barn was
built, along with a new goat barn and restaurant. A "seeing
eye" was added to the racetrack, in case of photo finishes.
World War II Comes To The Fair
With the country engaged in World War II, the 1942 fair
was scaled back to include only 4-H displays, livestock exhibits,
and 27 county displays; it was not considered an official
State Fair. During 1943 and 1944, operation of the fair was
suspended entirely, and the grounds leased to military units
as a place to bivouac. In the summer of 1943, at the request
of the Willamette Valley Cherry Growers, the Fairgrounds became
a labor camp for the Mexican workers needed to harvest the
Sammy Davis Junior Comes To The Fair
With the end of the war, the State Fair was soon in full
swing again and, in 1946, Governor Earl Snell's opening day
speech was broadcast over radio for the first time, inaugurating
a new tradition at the fair. A moveable stage on a track was
created for the musical reviews and variety shows which were
held at the grandstand. Sammy Davis, Jr., played this stage
as an unknown with his father and brother, as did Ted Mack.
Beer Is Served, But Only For A Short Time!
In 1951, the State Fair was removed from the jurisdiction
of the Department of Agriculture and put under the control
of the State Fair Commission, newly cre-ated by the Legislature.
Commission members served four-year terms and were appointed
by the Governor. In 1953, the Fair Commission, looking
for a reliable source of revenue, approved the sale of beer
at the fair. The approval was swiftly rescinded when church
groups objected, citing the importance of main-taining a family
atmosphere for the fair's many youthful participants. The
fair continued to grow in the 1950s and, by 1957, the fair
was clearly outgrowing its space--only 15 counties had room
for their displays.
JFK Comes To The Fair
In 1960, campaigning for the Presidency, John F. Kennedy
made a stop at the fair. The theme of the 1961 fair was the
"100th Birthday of the 96th Annual Fair." A birthday party
was held on the Capitol steps, complete with a 16x16-foot
cake, portrayals of Oregon's historical figures, and square
dancing. A hit at the fair was the Thor rocket, one of which
had earlier that year put a Pioneer satellite into orbit around
Dates Of Fair Change For School Children
In 1962, KOAC TV, Corvallis, and KOAP TV, Portland, began
broadcasting from the Natural Resources Building, covering
fair events in addition to its regu-larly scheduled programming.
Fairgoers were invited to stop by and view the broadcasts
in progress. In 1964, attendance dropped off sharply when
the children returned to school following the Labor Day holiday,
prompting the State Fair Commission to reschedule the 1965
fair to run from August 29th through September 6th, Labor
Day. Educators and 4-H leaders applauded the change, which
meant participation in the fair would not interfere with school.
While there was concern that the change would
mean loss of horseracing reve-nues, the Labor Day end to the
fair has remained to this day. The 1965 fair was considered
the true centennial of the fair, and Northwest Natural Gas
created a 75-foot candle, the "Oregon Flame," to honor Oregon
agriculture. The candle, fueled by natural gas, was turned
on by Governor Mark Hatfield as the fair opened. A brand new
Women's Building was added that year.
Fire At The Fair
In July, 1967, less than a month before the fair was due to
open, a major fire hit the Fairgrounds. Two buildings were
total losses: the 63,000-square-foot Com-mercial Building;
and the 47,188-square-foot Natural Resources Building, which
had been built in 1891. Forty percent of the commercial exhibit
space was lost, and Pacific Northwest Bell and Northwest Natural
Gas lost permanent exhibits. There were no major injuries,
but all Salem firemen were called to the scene. Insurance
coverage on the two buildings amounted to only $750,000, while
replacement costs were estimated to be $2-3 million.
Fortunately, fair officials had been working
with an architect on long-range changes to the Fairgrounds.
Those plans were put on display at the 1967 fair, which went
on as scheduled, housed in tents donated by church groups,
the Portland Rose Festival, and West Coast Carnival, Inc.
A patient from the Fair-view Training Center, who had been
working in the Commercial Building before the fire, was charged
with arson in the fire and pleaded not guilty by reason of
Two years after the fire, Governor Tom McCall dedicated the
new Agricultural Exhibits and Commercial Hall buildings. The
hit of the 1970 State Fair was the 103-foot replica of the
rocket that took Gemini into orbit and a display of moon rocks,
which had been sent to Governor McCall from President Richard
Nixon. An additional charge for daily shows was added to the
ticket price in 1971 and, that same year, beer was sold for
the first time. In 1972, a tribute to the timber industry
featured two acres of exhibits, including a 32-foot high model
of Mt. Hood, complete with glacial cold air, trees, fish pond,
In 1974, Lillie Ward became State Fair Director,
the first woman to hold the position--and the next year, the
Women's Building, in keeping with the times, was renamed the
Living Arts Building. The centerpiece of 1975's "Salute to
the Sea" was the 175,000-gallon "Oregon Ocean," a huge pool
used for synchro-nized swimming shows and water polo matches.
The carnival was enlarged in 1976, and the grounds received
a general facelift in 1978.
Rufus The Wayward Steer
One of the more amusing incidents in fair history occurred
on opening day, 1979, when a steer named Rufus escaped from
his handlers, swam the Willa-mette River, and found his way
to a cornfield, where he stayed for six weeks. Rufus
became the fair's mascot, and was displayed--behind reinforced
fencing--from 1980 through 1987. Sadly, Rufus was euthanized
in early 1988 after he in-jured his leg.
But the fair did poorly financially during
these years, even though attendance continued to increase
and the length of the fair was lengthened. The mission of
the fair was debated: should it remain true to its rural,
agricultural roots, or should it become more "modern" and
urbanized? In 1974, a Legislative Emer-gency Board subcommittee
even recommended a study to determine whether the fair should
be abolished. In January, 1975, Governor Robert Straub and
more than 200 people jammed a session of the Joint Ways and
Means Committee to support continuation of the fair.
At issue was a proposed $1.5 million General
Fund expenditure for a multipur-pose building and other improvements.
The Committee eventually approved the financing, with additional
financial support pledged by the City of Salem, Marion County,
and the Salem Chamber of Commerce. After numerous delays and
a plea to the Emergency Board for additional funds, the Jackman-Long
Building was finally dedicated in August, 1976.
Because of the fair's financial problems, Governor Straub
restructured the State Fair Commission and gave control over
the fair to the Executive Department, with a fair director
to be appointed by the Governor. The State Fair Commis-sion
would be expanded to nine members, who would serve the director
in an advisory capacity.
The 1980 fair set a new attendance record, with 647,999
visitors over the fair's ten-day run. The fair began booking
well-known acts for its weekday shows, in an effort to boost
weekday receipts. In 1982, a new modern $137,000 "manure removal
system" was installed after problems with the City of Salem
over the handling of manure at the Fairgrounds. The rodeo,
which had suffered from lack of attendance and low revenues,
was discontinued in 1983. Three new "trolley" wagons, built
by inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary and pulled by
trac-tors, began shuttling visitors between parking and the
Fairgrounds in 1985.
Another attendance record was set in 1986: 791,000,
and this was broken the next year, when 818,285 people visited
the fair. That year also saw the dedica-tion of a new $2.4
million livestock pavilion, and the 9,000-seat L.B. Day Am-phitheater.
A second arson fire, this one set by three young girls, erupted
in March, 1989, destroying a beef barn and doing a total of
$737,690 in dama-ges. A $1 million, 21,000-square-foot beef
barn opened in time for the fair in August.
Today, the Fairgrounds comprise a total of 185 acres,
with 15 permanent buil-dings. An annual average of 400,000
people from around the state and country enjoy the fair every
year, consuming 250,000 hamburgers, 833,333 hot dogs (78.9
miles of hot dogs, if laid end to end), and 40,000 gallons
of soda pop. During its 12-day run each year, the fair actually
becomes the fifth largest city in the state, complete with
its own police, emergency medical services, and public works
The Oregon State Fair has weathered growing
pains and financial woes in its history, and has continued
to expand and evolve. From a tiny harvest festival on the
banks of the Clackamas River, it has grown into a large and
diverse event, with something for everyone: livestock, floral,
4-H and home economics exhibits, country western and jazz
concerts, commercial exhibits, art and photo-graphy displays,
food from all cultures and, of course, the carnival.
The Oregon State Fair continues today as a true celebration
In October, 2002, the old State Fair Grandstand
was demolished, with orna-mental
work on its stucco facade to be salvaged for the replacement
facility. The new facility will be constructed to accommodate
concerts. The future on its horse-racing is unknown.
In 2004, the new exhibition hall opened to the public replacing
the race track.
Written and compiled by Kathleen Clements Carlson
Branaugh, Barry; and Dayna J. Collins, Susan Gibby, LaVerne
Marker, Mark McKinney. "The Oregon State Fair: A History."
"Historical Context Statement for Salem," Aug.
1992; Appendix F: pp. 75-76.
Capital Journal, Salem, OR; August 30, 1961.
Interview: Leo Spitzbart by Edwin Culp, Sept. 1969; Marion
County Historical Society.