Oregon Country Fair Is Golden -- Celebrating 50 Years

Jul 10, 2019

This year, the Oregon Country Fair was designated an Oregon Heritage Tradition. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert takes a walk down memory lane with an archivist, a museum curator and an historian to reminisce on 50 years of Fair.

Credit Harry Gross

About 9 years ago, a fellow by the name of Alan Kimble contacted the Oregon Country Fair office. He wanted to donate a film he had made of the very first fair in 1969.

The silent film was shot with a super 8 camera. The film maker kind of likened the fair to a gathering of peasants. So the first part of the 20-minute movie is dubbed with Baroque music as a background.”

Longtime Fair goer Jerry Joffe saw the film and he says that got him thinking.

“Well, where is the history of the fair, where is it located?”

Joffe wrote a successful grant and he and Fair staff started reaching out for people to donate items which embody the Fair experience. Now those archives are on display at the Lane County History Museum for public to see. Faith Kreskey is Exhibits Curator.

“The very first Fair was the Oregon Renaissance Pleasure Fair and it was held in November, 1969,” says Kreskey. “And it was actually held in an abandoned peach orchard off of Hawkins Lane.”

Credit Oregon Country Fair

Ok. Here is where we point out that since the 1980’s, the Oregon Country Fair logo includes a round, plump, peach.

“The designers of the fair logo in the 1980’s claim that they did not know about the peach orchard origins and say that it has no ties,” Kreskey says, “however I don’t know that I completely believe them on that.”

Some of the most treasured items in the OCF archives are photographs of the first Fair taken by Eugene resident Harry Gross. Jerry Joffe describes a picture of three musicians playing in a meadow.

“They have big smiles on their face and there’s a young child watching,” Joffe says. “There’s just a few people listening to them play. But it’s maybe a foreshadowing—you know now the thousands of people that fill the 24 stages at the Fair to enjoy all kinds of music.”

This is the band Turkuaz jamming on Main Stage in 2018. And yes, thousands of people danced in the meadow.

Original painting of merry makers on a popular path at the Oregon Country Fair.

Since the beginning, the Oregon Country Fair has been about merry making. And that includes parades. Lots of them.

Jerry Garcia puppet arrives at Main Stage
Credit Tiffany Eckert

Credit Tiffany Eckert

Looming large over the archives exhibit, is a huge lady.

“Her name is Alya and she is a puppet made by Jill Telise who’s one of the longtime puppet performers at the fair,” says Kreskey.  “She’s a member of the coyote rising troupes so they’re the people responsible for the very large monumental puppets. Including the ones with the giant hands that kind of float above the crowd.

Around the corner at the museum stands an ornate box. Kreskey describes.

“This is a piece by Kari Johnson and it is a fortune telling machine called the Revolutionary Oracle. So people can spin it…”

Credit Tiffany Eckert

This exhibit includes examples of crafts like pottery and pine needle baskets as well as Fair paraphernalia --original posters and even the earliest Fair back stage passes (way before wristbands they were hand-painted bandanas.)

The 50th Anniversary Oregon Country Fair exhibit will run at the Lane County History Museum for a year. To curate, Kreskey says she relied on the historical knowledge of others.

“I’m Suzi Prozanski and I’ve written two books about the Oregon Country Fair documenting its history.

Her latest book is called Brigadoon of the Sixties: Revelry and Kerfuffles at the Oregon Country Fair. It references the musical, Brigadoon, about a village which seeks to preserve its culture by only appearing one day every 100 years.

Suzi Prozanski with her two books.
Credit Tiffany Eckert

“To me, the Fair seems like another kind of Brigadoon where we preserve a certain kind of culture by meeting three days a year,” says Prozanski. “It’s quite different from the musical. But the sense of it, a culture that re-emerges, or a village that comes to life for a little while and then goes away. That definitely describes the fair to a lot of us.”

Today, Fair staff say average annual attendance is between 38,000 and 45,000 people over the second weekend in July. The 50th anniversary weekend is expected to exceed those averages. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh headlines Main Stage on Friday.

Music: Phil Lesh plays and sings “Unbroken Chain.”

Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band drew record crowds at Main Stage on Friday, July 12, 2019.
Credit Tiffany Eckert

Something that fascinates Prozanski is the inter-connection of Fair and organizations that have become key to what Eugene is today. She says the Saturday Market came out of the Craft Guild which formed after the first Fair in 1969.

“The same time, Whitebird which is separately formed, participated in the second Fair in 1970 and every one since.

Standing amongst the OCF archives he helped create, Jerry Joffe reflects.

“Ya know, the Fair is 50 years old this year, and a lot of people that were involved from the beginning are no longer with us,” says Joffe. “You know it’s kind of bittersweet when you start remembering all the years. But the Fair, I think, does a good job of naming things after people who have been so instrumental and so loved.”

A couple examples of this: The Bill Wooten Endowment Fund honors the Fair’s co-founder and supports environmental education projects in the Fern Ridge area.

Archival photos at the 50th OCF exhibit includes this picture of Bill and Cynthia Wooten, original Fair founders.

A bridge, “Jill’s Crossing” and the Jill Heiman Vision Fund are named for the Fair’s stalwart attorney, who was pivotal in establishing the Oregon Country Fair’s non-profit status and purchasing the land where the event is held to this day.

Jill Heiman was the attorney for Oregon Country Fair. This photo appears in a chapter on her many legal contributions to OCF in Susan Prozanski's book Brigadoon of the Sixties: Revelry and Kerfuffles at the Oregon Country Fair.

Folks could have a variety of ideas about what the Oregon Country Fair is about.

“Well, let’s just say that there’s a Fair for every person. Every person has their own Fair in some ways and what you see and what delights you is different.”

Song: “And I remember, how we fell in love at the Country Fair.”

The 50th Oregon Country Fair begins Friday, July 12th, 2019.

Production credit to  Jerry Joffe for contribution of archival audio from his 1980 video of Oregon Country Fair.