The Dirt Issue 29 – The Skagit County Fair

Posted on July 25, 2018
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Time for the Fair!
A highlight of our summers for well over a hundred years, the Skagit County Fair is set to delight, excite and educate again this year. Running from Wednesday, August 8 through Saturday, August 11, the Fair will follow a long and storied tradition as fairgoers of every age and background convene once more to enjoy the best the County has to offer.
Fairs are longstanding in human history with references to them found in the Bible and other ancient texts. The word itself is said to derive from the Latin “feria,” meaning holy day. Under the Roman Empire, such days were set apart for religious observation as well as harvest celebrations, secular entertainments and merrymaking. By the time America was a colony, fairs still had religious ties as well as commercial ones. Whenever and wherever they’ve been held, fairs have always had strong ties to agriculture.
Long considered a time of celebration for a good harvest, fairs are a special time away from day-to-day obligations, a chance to reconnect socially, to relax and take in some fun, and always a time to learn. The Skagit County Fair is-like all good fairs-a bridge between our past and our present, as well as a very good glimpse toward our future.
A Lively Local History
Let’s start at the beginning. Skagit County was created by an act of the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1883. Six years later, in 1889, Washington gained statehood and the very next year, the first effort was made to hold a county fair.
Imagine the times: Very few roads, most travel of any distance was along the river, there were no bridges, and Fir Island was accessible only by ferry. Traveling between Anacortes, Sedro, Woolley (not yet merged), Mount Vernon or anywhere, really, took a real commitment in time and effort. Agriculture was burgeoning, the County was gaining a reputation for the richness of its soil and hard-working settlers were coming to try their luck. It was a time when work was constant and recreation precious. Early histories cite picnic and camping as popular fair-weather pastimes. Social interaction was sought out as a way to cement friendships and join forces to get things done.
A county fair was a way to combine all these things. Families would leave their homes for a few days, take the journey to the fair, camp while there, picnic with neighbors, enjoy agricultural exhibits and competitions, and partake in entertainment and fun.
It wasn’t until 1901 that a Skagit County Fair was finally formalized with the creation of a Fair Association early in September that year by representatives from Anacortes, Bayview, Fidalgo, La Conner, Mount Vernon, Sedro-Woolley and Skagit City. The initial capital stock of fifteen thousand dollars was to be used to purchase ground and construct buildings for a permanent fairground in Mount Vernon. The group was able to hold the first official Skagit County Fair in October, mere weeks after forming, and before buildings and other fair infrastructure was built.
In 1911 the Skagit County Fair moved across the Skagit River towards Burlington, to the site now occupied by Fred Meyer. Noted for its horse and harness racing, band concerts, farming exhibits and plenty of socializing, it remained a popular venue until the wake of the Great Depression when lack of money to maintain the fairgrounds saw the event moved once again, this time to Sedro-Woolley’s Union High School. In the austerity of the 1930s, the Fair was smaller in scope and billed as the Skagit County and 4-H Fair. In 1941 the Fair returned to Mount Vernon, on designated fairgrounds south of the city center where it has remained to this day.
4-H, FFA, Granges and Fairs 
Local fairs, including the Skagit County Fair, are where 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) youth both exhibit and perform while their club projects are presented for evaluation, not as participant-to-participant, but to a set standard. That’s why there are many prizes-white, red, or blue ribbons-awarded in each division. The highest scoring entries in each category qualify to go on for further competition at the Washington State Fair.   Granges-and Skagit County has five-also compete at the Fair in two divisions: produce booths and project booths. Each Grange is allowed to enter only one division, but can combine produce with project. Competitors are rewarded for their participation with increasing payment based upon the color of the ribbon(s) they receive.
Now and always…
When it comes to the Fair, both tradition and innovation have remained constant. Likewise, the tradition of the local community coming together to share in the shear bounty of Skagit County life is unchanging. The Skagit County Fair helps us remember our roots and points the way to our future. It’s a celebration of our heritage, recognition of our values, and an outward example of our pride in our home; something to keep in mind this August and for many Augusts to come.