On October 2, 1906, visitors from Whatcom and Skagit counties join residents of the San Juan Islands at the opening of the first San Juan County Fair. The organizer of the four-day fair, held on San Juan Island in a cannery building on the Friday Harbor waterfront, is Orcas Island farmer and orchardist W. J. Court (1840-1913), a great proponent of agricultural exhibitions for promoting local products and encouraging further settlement of the county. For years he has urged local farmers to participate in the Whatcom County and Washington state fairs, and he is eager to make San Juan County's first fair a success. Despite the fair's positive reception, it will be 15 years before the next fair occurs. But except during World War II the San Juan County Fair will become an annual event, expanding and diversifying to include hands-on arts and crafts and other activities, entertainment, food, community information booths, carnival fun, a large 4-H presence, and a decorated-squash race dubbed the Zucchini 500. Even in the pandemic year of 2020, the San Juan County Fair will not be canceled, but creatively re-imagined into a virtual fair.
Agricultural Fairs: Exhibits, Competitions, Entertainment, Education
Agricultural fairs in the U.S. had a modest beginning in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when an event took place in 1807 largely limited to sheep-shearing demonstrations. Elkanah Watson (1758-1842), a neighboring farmer, had more ambitious ideas, however, and began by organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society. Then, in 1811, he and the society presented an event that was not just an exhibition of animals but included a competition with prize money for the best oxen, cattle, swine, and sheep. A total of $70 was awarded. Farmers could exchange information about their experiences with crops and livestock and learn about methods, breeds, and seed varieties that might provide them with better yields and more successful farms. By the end of the nineteenth century fairs were widespread throughout the country.
Just four years after establishment of the state of Washington in 1889, the legislature passed a bill creating a State Agricultural Fair to take place in Yakima east of the Cascades; $10,000 was allotted for buildings and facilities. An exhibition hall, a grandstand seating 2,000, a racetrack with a three-story-high judges' stand, and 100 horse stalls were ready for visitors who attended the first fair in September 1894. The event evolved into the Central Washington State Fair. By 1900 the focus for many fairgoers and participants had shifted to the Valley Fair (now the Washington State Fair) in Puyallup west of the mountains in Pierce County. Early fairs there included agricultural and livestock exhibits but also women's handwork and soon a circus, vaudeville acts, log-rolling and fiddler contests, and other entertainments.
Participating in and visiting agricultural fairs were becoming important opportunities for farmers to meet and exchange information. In 1904 a nationally syndicated column in the San Juan Islander, one of the local newspapers in the islands of San Juan County, noted "the educational advantages of the county fair ought not to be overlooked and the family should be taken to every one that can be reached at a moderate cost. Get in the world and see what other farmers are doing" ("Agricultural ..."). From the first years of the twentieth century, fairs occurred annually in Skagit and Whatcom counties and islanders were invited to include their exhibits. W. J. Court of Orcas Island was an early participant, and by 1904 was regularly exhibiting his grains and fruit at the Whatcom County Fair and offering to assist other county farmers to show their best products. The Bellingham Herald was quoted in the San Juan Islander: "The Whatcom County Fair serves to draw attention to San Juan County and its wonderful resources. The displays at the fair will prove a good advertisement" ("A Land ..."). The Herald went on to lament that so few farmers from the islands took advantage of the opportunity to participate.
The First San Juan County Fair
If Whatcom and Skagit could do it, why shouldn't San Juan County have its own fair? The San Juan Islander's very first issue of 1906 announced that a fair would be held that fall, open to participation by all county residents. The paper's editor was clearly in favor of the idea: "There is no reason why a most excellent exhibit of the resources and products of the county should not be made here that would serve as an impetus to our leading industries, encourage a healthy spirit of rivalry and attract much favorable attention from tourists and the people of neighboring cities" (Islander, January 6, 1906).
Planning began in earnest. The cannery building of the Pacific American Fisheries Company in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island was secured as the venue for the four-day event, well-situated on the shoreline for easy boat transport of livestock, exhibits, and visitors. Court, with his considerable experience in organizing agricultural exhibits, assumed leadership of the project. His promotion of the fair was both spirited and confident:
"We will open the eyes of the people of the Northwest ... Our islands can produce as good fruit, vegetables, hay and grains as can be grown anywhere in the state, which we will prove to our visitors at our fair" ("Court Boosting ...").
Farmers were encouraged to plant their crops with the upcoming fair in mind. In May Court called a meeting of farmers and businessmen to discuss organization of the fair. It was agreed to create a San Juan County Fair Association; stock shares were sold for $5 each. Prominent county businessmen agreed to lead aspects of the fair's organization.
As word of the fair spread beyond San Juan County, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (as reported in the Islander) offered good wishes for its success while observing, "There is something alluring about the blue ribbons and prize money" at county fairs, which add "to the enjoyments of life after reaping a bountiful harvest" ("The Benefits ..."). Superintendents of the fair's divisions and activities strongly encouraged islanders to prepare the best of their produce, livestock, and skilled handwork for exhibit. Organizers worked to make participation as inclusive as possible, and the Islander reminded residents that "everything that is worthy of exhibition is wanted, whether it is from 'the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters underneath'" ("Big Excursion ..."). Exhibits would be delivered to Friday Harbor from other islands free of charge by the steamers Islander and Buckeye if securely wrapped, carefully addressed, and with the sender's name included.
Exhibits were organized into separate lots for competitions in a wide variety of produce and livestock. Horses, for example, were divided into subgroups of heavy draft, light draft, and roadsters. There were 31 separate lots for fall and winter apple varieties, and root vegetables had their own division encompassing lots for mangolds, long and short carrots, vegetable marrows, and three kinds of turnips, to name a few. The fair would also feature "ladies work" including quilts, hemstitching, knitted cotton, embroidery of several kinds, Battenberg and point lace, paper flowers, and many more types of handwork, both plain and fancy, as well as such products as preserved fruits and vegetables and baked goods. The woman in charge of this division traveled to other islands urging women to prepare something to exhibit and arranging for exhibits to be collected on the larger islands for transport to Friday Harbor. The 32-page premium book for the fair (published with the advertising support of numerous regional businesses including department stores, an undertaker, banks, bars, and a skating rink) listed a total of 341 exhibit lots, among them Ayrshire bull calves, best 5 pounds of red clover seed, darned stockings or socks, canned fish, painting on satin and on china, penmanship, mineral specimens, and collections of "Indian curios."
In 1906 the total population of San Juan County was approximately 3,000, with about 375 in Friday Harbor; the four-day fair was enjoyed by more than 1,200 attendees. The opening ceremony on October 2 featured speeches and music. Court thanked those who had helped organize the fair and bring it to fruition as well as the many fairgoers not just from the islands but from throughout the region. The fair had been promoted in Whatcom and Skagit counties, Seattle, and around the state, and businessmen in Bellingham and Anacortes chartered boats to transport hundreds of visitors to Friday Harbor. Island papers were effusive in their praise of the exhibits. The Friday Harbor Journal, a local rival of the Islander, reporting on the women's handwork and other exhibits, remarked that even "San Juan County people were surprised to know so many rare, beautiful and interesting articles existed in the homes in the islands, indicating refinement of taste, a love of the unique, and general intellectuality" ("The Fair a Winner ..."). The Islander noted with evident satisfaction, "It was such a thoroughly creditable exhibition in every way that not a single expression of disappointment or supercilious comment was heard from any visitor" ("First Fair ..."). Attendees who had arrived by boat commented on the warm welcome they received in the Friday Harbor community and how much the hospitality to "tired visitors" ("West Sound") was appreciated throughout the fair.
The financial report for the fair was presented to the San Juan County Fair Association in December. It noted expenses that included $15 for piano rental, $6.50 for meals for the band that performed, and $2.50 for straw, as well as advertising in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Puget Sound American, The Ranch, and the Bellingham Herald. At the time of the report some stock sales income was still due, a few bills were outstanding, and premiums had not all been awarded. It appeared that the fair's income and expense accounts would ultimately come out just about even or slightly in arrears. The fair had been extremely well-received, but was not a financial success.
A Long Wait for the Next Fair
It is not known whether the amount of organizational effort had proved too daunting, or if county residents were not interested in immediately participating in another fair, or financial issues discouraged another such undertaking, but the San Juan County Fair Association did not announce a fair for the following year -- or for many years thereafter. In 1909, Court was fully engaged in planning for the county's participation in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle and, even for that enormous and important regional event, he often had to plead with islanders to keep him stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and other produce for the county display.
Islanders frequently attended the Whatcom, Skagit, and Jefferson county fairs and the state fair through the years, and some submitted exhibits, especially to the Whatcom fair, but many remained hopeful that a San Juan County Fair could be organized again. A 1912 article reiterated the benefits of county fairs and noted rather wistfully, "The San Juan County Fair is said to have been a splendid exhibition, all things considered, and there are many who would be glad to see it revived" (Islander, April 19, 1912). But it was not until 1921 that residents of the San Juans would again have their own county fair.
For some years before that, school fairs and adult events on individual islands had provided opportunities to exhibit animals and projects, but for many these events seemed too limited and local; more diversified exhibits and activities appealing to broader audiences were wanted. Residents on the largest islands (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw) were establishing local farm bureaus to support farmers and encourage them to undertake cooperative projects. Eventually representatives of these individual organizations joined in creating a farm bureau to focus on countywide issues and challenges. And, at last, in 1920, the San Juan County Farm Bureau appointed a committee to develop plans for a 1921 San Juan County Fair.
Again the fair was to take place in a canning warehouse on the Friday Harbor waterfront. It was thought that a large crowd and the weight of animals and exhibits might be too much for the warehouse floor, and efforts were undertaken to shore it up. Livestock submissions were so numerous that the event earned the nickname "the Bull Fair." But an emphasis was also placed on participation by schools and children, with many classes just for them in, for example, cooking, agriculture, dairy products, bird houses, wildflower and seaweed collections, and pet care. An especially popular fair feature that year (and for many years thereafter) was a baby beauty contest. Banner headlines topping the Journal front page for three weeks reminded islanders of the upcoming fair and urged participation.
The fair was considered a great success, and the paper said "it can be readily seen [that] the educational features in fostering community pride and creating a friendly rivalry in excelling, are elements in a fair that can not be over-estimated, and it is hoped by the San Juan County Farm Bureau to make the county fair an annual occasion progressively better year by year" (Friday Harbor Journal, October 13, 1921). To be an annual event, however, the fair required a permanent site with appropriate facilities.
New Permanent Fairgrounds
The following year the Shaw Island Farm Bureau announced that as the most centrally located of the four largest islands, Shaw was "the proper place" for the permanent fairgrounds ("Shaw Island Makes ..."), and residents there generously offered to donate 10 acres of land together with $500 cash, 115 days of labor, 6,000 feet of lumber, and a free water supply to the property. However, Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the county's most populous community (and county seat), with a proposed site relatively close to easily accessible deepwater docks, seemed by many to be a better option. In April the San Juan County Farm Bureau Fair Committee met and decided (but only after three ballots) to accept the Shaw offer. This outcome was not universally popular, however, and in June another committee meeting was arranged with the Orcas Island Farm Bureau (but not well-publicized and therefore sparsely attended by Shaw islanders) at which a second vote was taken, and this time the Friday Harbor location was declared the future home of the fair. Learning of the vote only after the fact, Shaw islanders were disappointed and angry that behind-closed-doors politicking and maneuvering seemed to have taken place.
In 1923 articles of incorporation were filed with the state for a nonprofit San Juan County Fair, with capital stock of $5,000, raised by selling 1,000 shares of stock at $5 each, that funded construction of the fairgrounds. The rather expansive objective for which the fair was organized, according to the articles, was the authority to:
"buy, sell, lease or otherwise deal in lands, livestock, grain, hay and all farm products, lumber and building material, to construct and erect buildings and other structures on contract or otherwise, to hold shows, exhibits, fairs of all kinds, dances, socials, banquets and all kinds of social entertainment, to lay out, conduct, and maintain parks, pleasure resorts, and playfields" ("Articles ...").
The fairgrounds site, purchased from local department-store proprietor L. B. Carter (1857-1937) for $1,200, was a heavily wooded, 10-acre property on Argyle Avenue up a hill just south of the center of Friday Harbor. When development of the site began, 10 to 12 teams of heavy draft horses were needed to clear stumps even after the ground had been blasted and leveled. A University of Washington landscape architect was engaged to design the fairgrounds. Volunteers constructed a main building, poultry building, stock building, and other facilities. Island pioneer families each contributed a log to create a small pioneer cabin that was to be used for historical exhibits and programs. Before everything could be finished the project ran out of funds, so the local Hackett-Larson Post of the American Legion (itself only a few years old) offered to build the grandstand and baseball diamond, contributing $500 and later an additional $350 more that was needed. The post was repaid for its assistance by receiving the hotdog concession and being able to sell disabled veterans' wares at the fair for years to come. The 1924 San Juan County Fair opened on the new fairgrounds to great acclaim.
Becoming an Island Tradition
For the next few years the fair grew slowly as community groups sponsored and organized new events. The first carnival, for example, was brought in by the Friday Harbor Commercial Club in 1927. In 1929, although the fair dates were announced in early spring, the community did not respond with much enthusiasm, so the 100 boys and girls of the county's 4-H clubs, with the club leaders, took over and ran a fair on their own. Although concessions and rides weren't part of the fair that year, it included 275 exhibits and was a lively event. Next year interest had rekindled, and fireworks, airplane rides, a new pavilion for dancing, and glass showcases for displays were added to the facilities and activities. A fire in August 1936 destroyed the stock and poultry buildings, but the fair was still able to go on that year and even had the added attraction of several sports competitions, including greased-pole climbing and boxing matches. By 1941 the fair's financial balance sheet recorded a positive $53.02.
Although there were some individual island fairs during World War II, the county fair was suspended until 1946 when renewed community commitment and energy fostered new activities, rides, hot dinners, daily concerts, and a raffle for a fishing boat built by a local shipyard. U.S. Representative (and future senator) Henry Jackson (1912-1983) delivered an address at the baseball game between the San Juan All Stars and the Spanaway Athletics from Pierce County.
Through the following years events and activities came and went as interests waxed and waned. Tuberculosis was still a real health threat into the late 1940s, and an x-ray machine at the 1948 fair providing free chest x-rays was well-patronized. An annual contest for a fair queen began in 1955, but 20 years later was scrapped for lack of interest. A parade from the docks to the fairgrounds was a popular event for decades before being discontinued. Entertainments reflected the tastes of the times from medicine shows to dances to rock bands, but rides and carnival games were always (and remain) popular. In the mid 1970s the fair, until then operated as a private corporation, was transferred to San Juan County administration to make it eligible for state funding (from taxes on parimutuel horse-race betting). By 1982 the fair had expanded to 27 buildings and venues; admission still cost only $2.50 for adults, or $3.50 for a season ticket.
Many exhibit classes and activities were carried on into the twenty-first century. Livestock, poultry, fruits and vegetables, flowers and plants, jams and jellies, art and photography, and cookies and cakes are all still popular entries. Since 1965 each year's fair has had a theme used for promotional materials and some exhibit lots. Many themes have reflected the agricultural heritage of the fair ("Bringing in the Harvest" in 2003), but others have been more general, from "Old Fashioned Fun" in 1989 to "Diversity" in 1995 and "Footloose at the Fair" in 2013. A sheep-to-shawl event begun in 1980 remains a favorite -- within less than a day a sheep is shorn and the wool is cleaned, carded, spun, and woven into a shawl by skilled islanders either as a demonstration or as a competition between teams from different islands. Chicken races (begun in 1981) and rabbit races are always great fun for both the children with their animals and the spectators in the stands. Many island youth train each year for horse-riding competitions. In 2001 a new event was added. Several classes of imaginatively engineered, zucchini-bodied, wheeled racers, often with elaborate decoration and sometimes including small "driver" figures, are released down the steep incline of the fairground's skatepark. Competition in the Zucchini 500 is friendly but fierce, and crowds cheer on the participants.
The theme "2020: A Fair Odyssey" had already been announced and planning was well underway when it became apparent that a crowd-friendly fair was not going to be possible during the intensifying Covid-19 pandemic. However, the San Juan County Fair staff decided not to cancel the 2020 fair but to devise an alternative -- a virtual fair in which islanders could still exhibit and educational offerings could continue, but with appropriate distancing. The fair's website offered virtual fair portals. Exhibitors could submit items in categories from cupcakes to fruit, fine arts to livestock and pets. Competitors could even submit videos of their Zucchini 500 racers in action. Garden enthusiasts could watch video presentations on how to garden with local wildflowers or recognize native weeds, a favorite local restaurant provided a video cooking demonstration, and weavers could learn how to create an artistic rug fringe. The 4-H clubs had 379 entries of sewing, needlecraft, food preservation, poultry, sheep, swine, and many other exhibits. Even the customary auctions took place, but online, for the 4-H livestock, poultry, and eggs. The San Juan County Fair staff, with the cooperation and assistance of volunteer superintendents, demonstrated flexibility, creativity, and an enormous commitment to carrying on the traditions of the San Juan County Fair while facing new and unusual challenges and a foreshortened timeline.
Two decades earlier a fair manager put it all in context: "Since 1906 [fair participants] have shared what's great about living in the San Juan Islands" (Walker). County residents have confidence that future fairs will continue to include all those favorite activities and exhibits of islanders' skills and interests that have made the San Juan County Fair a much-anticipated summer event for more than a century.