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Okanogan County Fair: History dates back more than 100 years

By Brock Hires

Okanogan Living

Although the Okanogan County Fair will celebrate its 76th anniversary this year, its roots and traditions date back more than 100 years.

In 1905, the first known “county fair” was held in Riverside with an estimated attendance of 1,500. In 1913, the Grange organized a fair in Okanogan, which saw 2,500 spectators.

By 1916, Methow Valley resident Frank McLean was pushing for an annual county fair, advocating for larger countywide displays, agricultural features, and benefits for industries in the county. However, it wasn’t until 35 years later that his vision for a centrally located annual fair became a reality.

A fair was held in Oroville in 1946 and saw continued growth. The following year, the fair moved to the Methow Valley. At the same time, the City of Okanogan held its first Okanogan County Junior Fair at the Okanogan Livestock Sale Yard. According to historical accounts, there were more than 80 livestock exhibits, with the top steer selling for 49 cents per pound.

In 1948, the City of Okanogan was planning to give the fair association an island on the south end of town, but the island flooded. The fair association, with help from the Boots and Saddles Club, purchased the property where the fair is presently located in 1950.

Grandstands and main exhibit buildings were constructed in 1951, and the name was officially changed to “Okanogan County Fair.”

The 1960s brought several new buildings and features to the fairgrounds.

The Grange kitchen was built in 1960 and was the largest permanent food facility on the grounds at that time. It was located where the annex is presently. In 1961 the Commercial Building was added. It was condemned following the 2021 fair.

In 1962, strong winds struck and demolished the outside of exhibit booths, and in 1963 the fair was almost canceled after a fire began 10 days before opening day. Eight barns were destroyed in the blaze.

“Okanogan and Omak firemen had barely won an intense struggle to keep the flames from devouring the entire fairgrounds when county fair officials decided on the spot the exposition would be held anyway,” said an article in The Omak Chronicle published Aug. 29, 1963.

“Volunteers moved in promptly to help clear away the blackened debris. After looking into prospects of renting tents, fair officials by Tuesday had decided tents would not be needed.”

In 1965, four Quonset huts and hog, sheep and steer barns were built. The arts and crafts building followed in 1966.

By 1968, an administration building (now Jones Hall) was added, and a new horse barn was built on the north end of the grounds in 1981.

Decades of improvements

During the 1980s and 1990s, the fairgrounds saw the construction of the Agriplex and facelifts to several of the buildings.

In the late ‘80s, fairgrounds administration sought to increase usage of the grounds throughout the year. The fairgrounds flooded in 1989, and FEMA funds were used to start a major facelift for the entire grounds. Construction on the 120-foot-by-200-foot Agriplex began in 1989, with the goal of the facility eventually being used as a multi-use stadium. The country music group Restless Heart performed a concert in the newly constructed building as a kickoff to the 1989 fair. The second phase of the project (concrete floor, heat and Annex) were completed in the mid-1990s.

In 1990, new metal siding was added to the 4-H, Grange, and Horticulture buildings, and matching paint was added to the remaining 37 buildings on the fairgrounds. Renovated restrooms and show facilities were done the following year.

High winds blew the announcer booth off the top of the grandstands in 1992, so a new stand was built in a different location. The year 1992 also saw ground expansion, and the parking lot layout was revised.

In the following years, the grounds saw general maintenance and thrived as a county-based celebration.

Through the 2010s, a permanent stage was demolished for safety concerns and new bathrooms were added north of the poultry barn.

In 2015 the fair was delayed by two weeks because of the Okanogan Complex wildfire.

“The recommendation to move the fair date came after a nearly two-hour-long special Okanogan County Fair Advisory Committee meeting Thursday night,” said a Chronicle article from Sept. 6, 2015. “County commissioners agreed late last month to allow a Type 1 (highest) incident management team to use the fairgrounds as a fire camp, for up to 4,500 fire personnel, for 14 days.”

In 2019, a new 150-foot-by-300-foot rodeo arena was installed along with new race rails. A new announcer stand also was constructed.

In 2022, the grandstands were condemned and replaced with new aluminum seating, just in time for the 75th anniversary. The new grandstands were christened with a concert by country music artist Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry at the 2022 fair.


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