The state fair: A gathering place

April 22, 2010

Members of the Lanterman family pose during a picnic, circa 1910, at the Central Washington State Fairgrounds. (courtesy Yakima Valley Regional Library)

Horse racing, A.J. Splawn’s famed Hereford steers, and a hundred-foot table piled high with jars of fruit, preserves and samples of ore.

Local business leaders and farmers hosted Washington’s first state fair in 1894 after more than a year of planning. Hundreds of fairgoers from all over the state traveled by train to get to the fairgrounds — the current site of State Fair Park.

Gov. McGraw was unable to attend the Sept. 24 inaugural event, but a parade was held, led by the 26-piece Dayton Knights of Pythias band.

Yakima’s debut went off fairly smoothly, though the barbecue and Indian horse races were postponed so as not to interfere with hop-picking season.

“The concessions are filled with the usual fakes headed by that latest and most artistic fake of all, the girls who (do not) give you the famous dance du vetre. After these are egg throwing devices, merry-go-rounds and lunch counters galore …,” the Yakima Herald reported.

“Watch us in 1895.”

Auto racing in the early 20th century at the Central Washington State Fairgrounds.

Community leaders had lobbied the state to purchase a 120-acre parcel from Silas A. Gibson for the Washington State Fair, beating out King, Thurston and Spokane counties. For $10,000, the land came with an ice house, 25 acres of alfalfa and a racetrack.

Much of the energy — and money — collected by the fair commission was focused on building a new racing track, one designed to match the “celebrated speed track at Cleveland, Ohio, which is one of the fastest in the United States,” the Herald announced on March 29, 1894.

Cars parked in front of the Agriculture Building at the Central Washington State Fairgrounds in an undated photo from the early 20th century.

The first fair opened with an exhibit hall, 100 horse stalls, a grandstand and a judges’ stand that was three stories high.

Fair organizers struggled a bit with finances at first, mainly because the Legislature didn’t provide enough money. But by the late 1890s, horse racing, coyote hunts, Indian war dances and vaudeville entertainment had turned the state fair into a must-see annual event.

Hotel rooms were full beyond capacity, so some visitors rented rooms in people’s homes.

There were baby contests — with $10 dress pattern awarded to the best-looking child under 2 years old — dancing girls, a boa constrictor show and ostrich races.

Balloons at the Central Washington State Fairgrounds in 1910.

One year a man was buried under 6 feed of sod for five days, supposedly hypnotized while lying underground. Then there were the two men from Olympia and San Francisco who amazed the crowd by rising in their giant balloon, coming down by parachute.

Admission was 25 cents.
Buggies, wagons and saddle horses cost extra: 25 cents each.

In one historical account, Splawn, one of the fair commissioners, was so determined to put on a first-rate show that he bought an entire herd of prize cattle from Oregon and had it shipped by fast freight train, in time for the second day of the fair.

In 1911, first day attendance was 15,000 people.

Four years later, the directors of Yakima’s trolley system began offering transportation from downtown to the fairgrounds.

In later years, of course, fireworks became the big draw. Given the new popularity of the car, there was also something called an auto polo game, where automobiles with huge hoops over their hoods, batted a big ball around.

The 1930s brought disappointment — and change.

After the stock market crash in 1929, the Legislature withheld funds for the state fair. And even after it was resumed in 1932, the event wasn’t drawing big crowds anymore.

The Legislature abolished it in 1939.

Local residents, however, weren’t about to let the fair die. A group of more than 40 people representing agriculture, livestock breeding, business, the Granges and 4-H clubs came together to organize a fair that same year, in late September.

Its new name: the Central Washington Fair.

— Barbara Serrano

War dancers of the Yakama Nation at the fairgrounds in 1903.

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