A Fair Worth Fighting For

july- a fair worth fighting forrrrr

Return to King County’s roots with chicken tractors and baking contests

PHOTOS By Carole Topalian and from

King County Archives, John Spellman Photograph Collection (Series 413), image no. 90.0.0252

On October 21, 1863, ten years after Doc Maynard suggested that the city be named Seattle and 26 years before Washington would become a state, the King County Agricultural Society hosted the first King County Agricultural Fair. It was the first county fair west of the Mississippi and featured, according to Clarence Bagley’s 1916 History of Seattle, exhibits of horses, swine, dairy products, grain, vegetables, hay, fruits, and “domestic products.”

Over the years, the fair has moved from its original location in Georgetown and downtown Seattle (some early events were held in the Pioneer Building, which still stands at First and James in Pioneer Square) to various Grange halls around the county, and eventually to Enumclaw, its home since 1947.

“It was always promoted as an agriculture fair,” says 4-H Poultry Superintendent Craig Holmes, who has been researching the history of the fair. “And when our society was primarily agricultural, people were interested in coming to see what was happening in agriculture.”

As county and state fairs became less about the agriculture and more about the carnival rides and Sno-cones, city crowds headed to the busier Monroe and Puyallup Fairs. The smaller King County Fair struggled with attendance. 

“They brought in carnival rides and it became more of a money-making thing,” says Holmes. “But it was always promoted as an agricultural fair. We never got into that arena that Puyallup did.”

In October 2008, former King County Executive Ron Sims proposed shutting down the fair, citing poor attendance and tightening county budgets. According to the recommendations proposed to the Metropolitan King County Council, closing the fair would have saved the county $315,000.

“As 4-H we had a big stake in the fair,” says Holmes, who is also a 4-H leader and parent. “It’s the culminating event for 4-H, and we work up to it all year long. If there was no King County Fair, we would have to qualify in Pierce or Snohomish County, but they’re already overwhelmed by their programs. Basically, canceling the fair would cut our kids out of the program altogether.”

The Metropolitan King County Council held a public hearing at the field house in Enumclaw on October 22, which brought in more than 200 parents, 4-Hers, FFA members, and other King County residents concerned about losing the fair. King County Councilmembers Pete von Reichbauer, Reagan Dunn, and Larry Phillips all expressed their support for saving the 145-year old fair.

“What impressed the councilmembers more than anything,” says Holmes, who attended the meetings, “was when the kids got up there—whether they were in FFA or 4-H—and talked about what the programs meant to them.”

In November, the county formed a task force with representatives from Washington State 4-H, Washington State FFA, WSU Extension, and the State Fair Commission, as well as various city officials, whose task will be to figure out the best strategy—funding-wise and programming-wise—to keep the fair going. Their recommendation is due in August 2009.

To keep the fair going in the meantime, the King County Council “hired” the city of Enumclaw to run the 2009 fair, an agreement that lasts for one year.

“The goal is for the county to get out of funding the fair,” says Brad Gaolach, Director of King County’s WSU Extension office and a member of the task force. “The fair is in limbo. This year’s fair was a way to keep it limping along while we decide what to do.”

One possible direction is to focus on local food production, with demonstrations from chefs and farmers, and hands-on learning opportunities for urbanites who want to learn more about food and farming—a vision that WSU Extension is advocating.

“Our vision is of an old country fair with an emphasis on a small-scale rural lifestyle,” says Gaolach, who says that the fair is, despite the carnival rides and Elephant Ears, still primarily a country fair. “You can see how to do things like preserving and canning vegetables; how to dry food. Tractor vendors come to the fair, in addition to the 4-H and FFA exhibits.”

Even in its transition phase, the King County Fair has a lot to offer. You can spend the day in a beautiful rural setting at the base of Mount Rainier, observing or participating in traditional rural activities that are become increasingly more urban, such as:

***Gardening. This year, the fair will premier a new three-foot by 73-foot 4-H vegetable garden, planted along the west side of the horse barn. After the fair, it will be a permanent community garden. Gardening events at the fair include a “Composting 101” workshop with WSU King County Extension’s Darcy Batura, as well as presentations by KOMO’s resident gardening expert Ed Hume and Seattlepi.com columnist Marianne Binetti.

***Building a chicken tractor. Poultry 4-H members will walk through their projects on how to build a portable chicken coop, as well as other chicken care demonstrations and shows like the small animal round robin.

***Food demonstrations. At the fair, you can watch 4-Hers participate in onsite, judged contests on bread baking, food preservation (canning or freezing), or preparing a meal with a particular theme, such as “Foods of the Pacific Northwest.” You can also pick up a cookbook featuring last year’s blue-ribbon winners, which is a fundraiser for the kids.

A great way to learn about rural life is to talk with 4-H and FFA members, whose “herdsmanship” encourages them to be on hand at the exhibits and animal barns, so visitors can ask them about their projects.

Also, if you want to show off your own agricultural or cooking prowess, any King County resident is eligible to participate in Open Class contests. You can compete in the pie-baking contest, enter perfect carrots from your garden or even show an animal.

“The fair has been a part of this community for a long time,” says Fair Manager Joan Lewis. “The community as a whole is really behind it. We want it to succeed and grow.”

Heidi Broadhead writes for Amazon’s books blog, Omnivoracious, Fantagraphics’ BEASTS! series, and is the resident Book Nerd on publicola.net. She qualified for the State Fair with her blue-ribbon chocolate chip cookies when she was ten.

For a recipe for Jenny Lind Pudding from 1863, click here

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