The Evolution of the Washington State Fair

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Back in 1900 a group of farmers and business owners joined together to create a place where they could showcase animals and agriculture from the rich Puyallup Valley. 

They called it the Valley Fair, and the Oct. 4-6, 1900 fair was a success in downtown Puyallup that first year. The Valley Fair brought crowds from around the area, and even as far away as Tacoma.

What started out as a three-day event has grown over the years to 21 days held in September. It traditionally kicked off the Friday following Labor Day.

Even from the beginning three core values made up the Fair: Education, Family and Fun. This foundation continues today, though many attractions and activities have changed to be relevant with the times. While agriculture, animal exhibits, and women’s handiwork were highlights in the early days, horse racing quickly became an attraction, and stayed that way until 1977. Over the years, many guests came from near and far to see their favorite horse win at the Fair.

By 1913 the Fair was attracting guests throughout Western Washington, and the association changed the name to the Western Washington Fair. During this decade, special attractions included horse racing, vaudeville acts, a three-ring circus and fiddler acts. It was in 1915 that fair guests tasted Fisher Scones for the first time, a favorite fair food staple to this day.

Over the years, the Western Washington Fair continued to grow in attendance and in acreage, though it went into hiatus during WW II. The following year brought record crowds. Attractions continued to change, and by 1966 big name entertainment became part of the fair, with a dazzling group of young men called The Osmond Brothers performing.

The year 1976 brought with it a new slogan, “Do the Puyallup,” to match the new name, the Puyallup Fair. “Do the Puyallup” became such a household phrase that asking someone if they planned to “Do the Puyallup” was shorthand for attending the Puyallup Fair. 

The decision to change the name from the Puyallup Fair to the Washington State Fair didn’t happen overnight. 

While a large group of people thought it was already the unofficial state fair, newcomers thought it was a neighboring town fair. They didn’t realize that it draws over one million guests during 17 days, and is one of the largest fairs in the country. When told that the Puyallup Fair also hosted the state fairs for 4-H and FFA, they understood, as the biggest fair in their home state also hosted the youth fairs, and was recognized as the state fair, something they enjoyed attending.

After several years of research, focus groups and working with different branding and advertising agencies, the new name, Washington State Fair was introduced to guests during the 2012 Puyallup Fair.

 A History Timeline of the Washington State Fair:

 1900-1909

• In June 1900, a group of local businessmen, farmers and residents joined together to discuss the idea of a fair in the Puyallup Valley area.

• The board of directors was formed as the governing body of the “Valley Fair,” and they decided the purpose of the Valley Fair Association was to advance the interests of agricultural, horticultural, dairying, stock raising, mining and manufacturing industries of the Puyallup Valley.

• Selling shares of stock provided the capital to begin the Puyallup Fair. The dates of the first Fair were Oct. 4-6, 1900. It was located on a vacant lot just west of where Pioneer Park is now located.

• Admission to the first annual “Valley Fair” was $1 per family for all three days.

• An opening in the 10-foot fence which surrounded the fair acted as the first main gate. Sheds were built to house exhibits etc. with the leftover wood from building the fence.

• Inside, a tent was raised to protect produce, “ladies work,” and livestock. Horses and cows were tethered to a nearby fence.

• The second fair was extended one day longer than the first fair. It was held on Sept. 14-17, 1901. For this fair, a more adequate 10-acre lot was purchased on the southwest corner of 9th Avenue SW and Meridian South. At the fair, the most popular entertainment was horse racing. This is the reason why the fair was built around the race track (used from 1901-1977). People came from everywhere just to see their favorite horse win at the fair.

• Parking lots were also established in 1902. With the invention of the automobile, people were traveling from all over to come to the fair. Parking a buggy or automobile cost 25 cents.

• In 1905, the fair became a six-day event.

• Admissions brought in $5,500 in 1908. Since more people were coming to the fair, trains were making special trips from Tacoma and Seattle directly to the fair.

1910-1919

• In 1910, the fair purchased five more acres of land and added additional box seats to the grandstand seating.

• Tacoma merchants offered their support to the fair by closing their stores on Tacoma Day.

• The Puyallup Merchants Association also lent their support by closing their stores in the afternoons.

• In 1913, the “Valley Fair” was renamed The Western Washington Fair Association.

• Special attractions during this decade were horse racing, auto polo (this is when Ford Model T’s toss a rubber ball between them pushing it toward a goal), vaudeville acts, a three-ring circus, high wire acts, log rolling and fiddler contests.

• In 1914, a new grandstand was built at a cost of $3,500.

• In 1915, Western Washington fairgoers tasted their first Fisher Scones.

• Since World War I caused a drain on society, the 1917 Fair did not open until mid-October.

• After the war, the fair became even more prosperous. By 1919, the fair’s attendance was up to 75,000 people, and the fair was held on 30 acres.

1920-1929

• In the 20s, the main attractions for the seven-day show included chariot racing, daredevil horse riding, 15 acres of exhibits, new horse stables and racing horses.

• In 1922, attendance was at a record high of 130,000.

• Entertainment varied during this time. Native Americans who lived in tepees for the duration of the fair (as they also did in 1917) offered ponies for racing, presented war dances, held parades and told stories of early Indian history in the Northwest. In 1925, 50 Umatilla, Yakima and Nez Perce were represented at the fair.

• Many food concessions began in the 20s.

• Earl Douglas brought in the first carousel in 1923 on a horse-drawn wagon base, steam powered and featuring a Wurlitzer band organ. Today, this antique carousel has been restored and is now located in its own building in front of the Exposition Hall (now valued at $1.3 million dollars).

 1930-1939

• Even though the Great Depression was going on, people didn’t let it affect the fair’s festivities.

• By the mid-30s, the rides were much more advanced than the carnivals in the past.

• The breathtaking rides included a merry-go-round, roller coaster, Ferris wheels and kiddie rides. Most of the rides were operated by gasoline engines and later electric storage batteries.

• Another key feature at the fair in the 30s was the Dance Hall which is now located on Grand Avenue and Premium Boulevard. Each dance was five cents and when the dance was through, a braided rope gathered all of the dancers and led them out of the hall through the exit.

• The grandstand was expanded again in 1938 to accommodate the large audiences the fair was attracting. In 1939, the Hobby Hall and Art Gallery were built, adding more space for more exhibitors.

• Attendance by the late 30s was close to 400,000.

 1940-1949

• Even though the Puyallup Fair survived the first World War, the fair directors had no choice but to close the Fair during World War II.

• Shortly after the 1941 fair, the federal government took over the fairgrounds.

• An army unit occupied the grounds from December 1942 to March 1943. During the month of May in 1942 the fairgrounds became a relocation center for Japanese-Americans. Barbed wire fences and search lights surrounded the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds were renamed the Puyallup Assembly Center and was a temporary shelter for 7,390 Japanese-Americans. In September of 1942, the Japanese-Americans were sent to other locations, and the camp was torn down. Then, the fairgrounds were occupied by the U.S. Army 943rd Signal Service Battalion until they were transferred to Fort Lewis in December. From this time until the end of World War II, the fairgrounds remained closed.

• It took a lot of patience, cleaning-up, and hard work to get the fair ready to open again. The first postwar fair took place in September of 1946. People were eager to get out and enjoy themselves again in the family atmosphere that the fair provided. As a result, the fair set the record for a single day’s attendance at 100,000 people in 1946.

 1950-1959

• The roller coaster ride was thirty-five cents.

• Because of the war recession, the fair didn’t celebrate its 50th anniversary until 1953. The Anniversary Fair opened in September of 1953. Many changes had occurred, such as a new Education Building, and the new ride, the Loop-O-Plane.

• In 1954, the grandstand was rebuilt. It was made of steel and concrete, and its cost was half a million hard-earned dollars.

• In 1955, the mezzanine of the new grandstand became the headquarters for the International Photo Salon.

• A bigger Ferris wheel was added in 1955 standing 55-feet tall.

• In 1956, a 15-foot fountain was the added attraction in the Sports and Wildlife Building. 

1960-1969

• Bingo, lotteries, and other non-skill games for prizes were banned from the 1969 fair. It was found to not be in keeping with the Puyallup Fair’s purpose. Carnival (gambling) games were illegal.

• Some popular attractions at the fair in the 60s were The Flying Wallendas (a famous aerialist family), Circus Acts, Fred Smart’s Fireworks Show (began in 1961), Osmond Family Singers (1966) and Frank Sinatra Jr.

 1970-1979

• Early Sunday morning on June 14, 1970, the fair had its one and only fire. Many restaurants, the grandstand, part of the roller coaster, the Art and Floral Buildings, and some concessions were destroyed or damaged. The loss was estimated at $1.25 million and only $803,000 was covered by insurance.

• The 1970 Fair opened on schedule. Many concessions were placed in tents and the fire took its toll on the rides. Rides lost in the fire were the Old Mill, Roll-O-Plane and the Pretzel (an electric car ride.)

• Attendance was soaring and by 1975 the Western Washington Fair ranked the 10th largest fair in North America.

• Paving the fair, and filling the roads with gravel was a big project.

• Horse racing ended with the 1977 fair. It was a popular event for a quarter of a century, yet there were problems with the track being too muddy.

• In 1978, the fair was expanded from a 10-day fair to a 17-day fair. At this time, the fair was occupying 46 acres.

 1980-1989

• In attendance, the numbers fluctuated between 1.1 and 1.2 million until 1989 where it jumped to 1.3 million.

• The skyride was purchased from the Seattle Center in installed 1980.

• The Howdy Tour was also initiated in the early 80s. (This features specialized classroom tours focusing on animals and agriculture.)

• Fair rides became more extensive. By the late 80s, the Fair had 30-plus kiddie rides, and were expanding with a steel roller coaster and higher-speed rides.

• In 1982, the new two-story administration building was built to replace the old one built in 1958. This construction added the Exposition Hall, Ticket Sales Building and a new Main Gate.

• Many big name entertainers performed at the Fair in the 80s, which attracted even more people. Many of the performers returned year after year to entertain fairgoers of all ages.

• In 1985, the American Goat Association held their first-ever show at any fair at the Puyallup Fair.

• The fair grew into 125 acres.

 1990-1999

• As a result of the attendance peak in 1991 (1,414,487), the fair was the sixth largest fair in the United States.

• For the 1992 fair, a $13 million fairgrounds renovation project was completed in the south end of the facilities. New highlights included Blue Gate/Blue Gate Stage, the largest outdoor concert stage in the Pacific Northwest, new barns, new arena with 2,000 seats, petting farm, 100-foot boulevards and upgraded landscaping.

• In 1990, The Puyallup Fair held its first annual Spring Fair on April 20-22.

• In 1991, the Puyallup Fair was the first major fair in the United States to feature bungee jumping, with 2,055 fairgoers jumping from the crane at the fair.

• Frank Sinatra was the opening day headliner on the 1993 grandstand stage. He sang to a sold-out crowd.

• The rides have become even more sophisticated. In 1999 the Extreme Scream thrill ride, a 20-story attraction was added. The permanent ride cost over $2 million. There are approximately 70 rides and one-third of them are directed to attract the fair’s youngest crowd.

• The decade finished with an attendance of 1.2 million, making it the fifth highest attended fair in the country.

• The fair covers 160 acres.

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