Horse Races at Canby Fair Were Talk of the County

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They say all’s fair in love and war, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all’s love in war and fair. Indeed, a war (of words) was fought in 1908 over control of the fledgling Clackamas County Fair — and Canby was the winner.

The fair had started in Gladstone, and was a smashing success. But enterprising folks in Canby thought they could do it better — and they had just the spot in mind: a beautiful 40-acre plot on the east side of town, on land once owned by Supreme Court Chief Justice Aaron E. Wait and still held by his descendants.

Led by the Canby Development League chairman R.S. Coe and 23 other league members, the town was ultimately successful in bringing the fair to Canby, where it would remain for the next 112 years (at least).

A groundbreaking was held in late July 1918 to begin construction on the fairgrounds’ buildings and a first-class race track, and it was a festive occasion. Local officials came out in droves to view the beautiful grounds and make speeches under a copse of drooping fir trees.

The mayor of Canby, J.F. Mitts, had proclaimed the day a local holiday, and many downtown businesses closed their storefronts in honor of the momentous occasion. Canby’s Silver Comet Band met visitors at the old train depot (which, I guess, back then would have been the “new train depot”) and whisked them through a grand processional to where the ceremonies would be taking place.

Numerous delegates from surrounding communities were there to, quote, “rustle on the sidelines and make all the noise needed,” as recorded by The Oregonian.

Judge Grant Dimick, whose later exploits would reveal him to be one of the most sinister rogues in the county’s history, exhorted his listeners “to do all in their power to make the fair a success by talking and working for the enterprise in season and out of season,” according to the Canby Tribune’s chronicling of the event.

Another early fair booster, Professor Theodore James Gary, went even further.

“Mr. Gary advised everybody to boot up, and if we hear anyone talking against the fair, to take him out and hang him, or something to that effect,” the newspaper noted. “His remarks were timely and well-received.”

No “hangings” were recorded, but the work on the new fairgrounds came together splendidly. Out of the Wait family’s rich farm and forests grew barns, arenas, stadiums and outbuildings — some of which stand to this day.

Unlike the 1907 fair — which had been headlined by a gaudy carnival from out of town, including a masque ball, mardi gras, freak show and Family Feud-style contests — the centerpiece of the Canby fair would be its sparkling new horse racing track.

“The half-mile racetrack has been placed in order during the past few days, and is pronounced by experts to be one of the finest tracks in the state,” The Oregonian declared. “W.H. Counsell is directing the grader, steamroller and sprinkler at the fairgrounds, and the racetrack will be in first-class condition.”

Cash prizes of up to $1,000 were awarded to the fastest horses, thanks to liberal contributions from Portland businessmen and across the state. Not that it was all about speed. “Slow trotting” was also a popular form of racing entertainment in those days, and several were scheduled for the three-day event.

A five-mile relay race for pupils of the local schools was also considered an “interesting feature.” Other prizes would be given to top show performers for horses, cattle, sheep, swine, poultry, vegetables, fruit and “all kinds of farm products.”

“Awards will also be given for ladies’ textile products, bread, cakes, pies, preserved fruit, etc.,” The Oregonian said. “Fifty special prizes will be awarded for the best of ex­hibits of every kind of farm, garden or horticultural product.”

The most popular day was Friday, which had been designated “Oregon City Day,” something that had also been done in the 1907 fair. According to an earlier article, quote, “the entire town promises to pay Canby a visit and enjoy the rap­tures of country life for a day.”

That might have been an exaggeration — but not by much. Three-thousand souls visited the Clackamas County Fair that day, and almost a third of them from Oregon City, which in those days had a population of just north of 4,000.

There were so many folks from Oregon City, a special train was on hand just to take them home at the end of the night.

“The attendance was far greater than was anticipated by the fair officials,” a newspaper later recorded, “and was due partly to the perfect weather and in no small measure to the fact that … nearly 1,000 people came from the county seat to make a boost for old Clack­amas and her fine products that fill the big pavilion.”

The display of prod­ucts of the soil were amazing in variety and quality, though not so numerous as the previous year, due to a late frost. Nevertheless, the “mammoth vegetables and luscious fruits” grown by the family farms that thickly encircled the community and its fairgrounds, attracted wide attention.

The horse races, though, were widely considered to have been far superior to the previous year’s. There were more and better horses in competition — nearly 500 in number — and the crowds “poured in from all directions” to see them pound the dirt.

The fair wrapped up with an exhibition baseball game, with a hometown team hosting the Spartans from Portland. With one of the Knight boys on the mound and pitching a no-hitter, the Canby bats got hot and spanked the visitors, 16 to nothing — an old-fashioned thrashing.

The fair had found its permanent home, and in the rich Canby soil, it was prepared to grow, and grow. That, however, is a story for next time, on Canby Then.

Photo courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

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