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First fairground was (almost) in west Madras

This is the 80th Jefferson County Fair, but in a sense, it’s also a 100th anniversary.

Back in the summer of 1913 — just two years after the railroad arrived in the basin, spreading a confidence in the future throughout the region — a group of Madras area folks petitioned the Madras City Council to establish a fairgrounds. The council said, sure, but they couldn’t deed land to the fairgrounds group, because they weren’t a legally established entity.

But, up stepped Robert Rea. The Rea brothers, from the Portland area, were key to the early days of Madras. They had opened the Madras Townsite Co. back in 1904, and still owned many of the lots around Madras proper.

Rea made available a 40-acre tract of land north and west of the Madras Hotel (Fifth and D streets). A third party owned the land via a mortgage, but the mortgage was transferred to an E.L. Milner, of the fairground. So, the first “fairgrounds” in Madras was in West Madras.

The fair organization included all the “big names” in Madras of the day: Howard Turner, O.A. Pearce, Turk Irving, C.E. Roush. A first fair was slated for Oct. 16, 17 and 18, a week before the Crook County Fair and plenty of time after harvest for the fair families to attend.

But, alas, no fair was ever held. I have no idea why. The Pioneer is missing issues through August. Full page ads promoted the event in July, but by September, there was no mention of it. And there was no Madras fair in mid-October.

So, the Madras fair of 1913 didn’t happen. Instead, the event that would dominate summers in Madras became the Fish Fry, established the following summer, in 1914. The Fish Fry was a huge community party on the Deschutes River, near Warm Springs. Expert fishermen like Irving, Turner and Austin Culp would head out to the river days in advance, catch a ton of fish — literally, about a ton of fish — and people from all over Central Oregon (definitely all Jefferson County residents) would come for a feast and riverside fun. In 1926, over 1,200 people attended, ate, heard speeches and watched boxing matches, with Model Ts stretching for acres and acres.

But after serving as our community’s first “signature event,” the Fish Fry fizzled in the early 1930s. In 1931, after crews worked up a makeshift fairgrounds southeast of the elementary school, the first Jefferson County Fair was held. It’s noted a full 120 horses were involved. WWII canceled a couple fairs, making this year’s event the 80th.

The early days of the fair, back in the tough 1930s, provided the strong roots the event has enjoyed through the decades. Horse racing, rodeo, boxing matches, a parade, kids’ athletic events and exhibits at the old community center (which was located where the county annex is now, across Sixth Street from the old courthouse. The community hall would become a USO building during the war years).

In the 1930s, the fair as we know it today essentially took form.

The current fairground site was established in the mid-1960s, through a land swap between the school district and the county. The school district, bursting at its seams with dam construction-inspired growth, had land on the south end of town. It was determined that that location didn’t make as much sense for a school as did the location where the fairgrounds were, down by the grade school and the former Buff Elementary building. A land swap with the county made sense for both, and a new fairgrounds south of Madras was established.

The new fairgrounds were pretty slick, nearly a half century ago. The arena was especially impressive — I’m sure the Hagar twins (of Hee Haw fame, as if you didn’t know) thought so when they played the rodeo dance in 1974.

Part of what the county fair is all about is celebrating our heritage, and this column was an effort to throw a little history into the mix. But what the fair is most about is simply having fun. It’s an unmistakable, wonderful atmosphere: perfect summer weather, surrounded by the laughter of kids, the flash of the carnival and the moos of the champion steers, something as exciting as rodeo action or as quiet as a stroll through the exhibits — all under the aroma of that great American invention known as “fair food.”

Get on out to the fairgrounds for the 80th anniversary of the Jefferson County Fair.




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