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It’s the highlight of every August in Clackamas County, and has been for over a century — on just about every year but this one. But we’re not here to talk about this year! This is Canby Then, and history is the name of the game.
Today’s topic, of course, is the Clackamas County Fair, the crown jewel of Canby’s summer events calendar, and a source of fun, nostalgia, fond memories and — perhaps — even a regret or two the next time you step on the bathroom scale.
But it’s the county fair. It comes but once a year, and it is not the time to be quibbling over calories. If you see a sign for deep-fried ice cream on a stick or hand-battered pizza dogs smothered in hot cheese sauce — you get in line, because that’s not a menu item you’re likely to see at Gwynn’s Coffeehouse or even the daring Wayward Sandwiches.
But before the mind-bending taste configurations of the food court, before the bright lights and screams of the midway, there was simply, the Clackamas County Fair. A few prize hogs, some vegetables and pies, and the chance to celebrate a summer of labor well spent.
Though the fair has been associated with Canby seemingly since the beginning of time, residents may be surprised to learn that the first fair was actually held in Gladstone. That city’s founder, Judge Harvey Cross, had been convinced to lease sizeable acreage to the Chautauquas, an adult education and social movement that was sweeping the nation at that time.
The newly formed Willamette Valley Chautauqua Association there established Gladstone’s Chautauqua Park — which hosted an annual summer assembly with performances, lectures, and concerts — and which would grow to be the third-largest permanent Chautauqua assembly park in the United States.
William Jennings Bryan, an accomplished orator, lawyer and three-time Democratic candidate for president (but who is perhaps most famous today for arguing against evolution and Clarence Darrow in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial), drew a crowd of 6,000 to Gladstone’s Chautauqua Park in 1896, to hear him give his popular lecture, “The Prince of Peace”, which stressed that Christian theology, through both individual and group morality, was a solid foundation for peace and equality.
Anyway, it was there, at Chautauqua Park, that the first-ever Clackamas County Fair was staged on Oct. 10, 11 and 12, 1907. And by all accounts, it was a smashing success.
The board of directors — which included the infamous county-judge-turned-conman Grant B. Dimick — engaged Nat Reiss and his touring one-ring circus to put on a show for the ages, one that included a mirror maze, a premature baby in an incubator (believe it or not, it was a common attraction in those days) and, quote, “many other things familiar to patrons of carnivals and street fairs,” according to The Oregonian.
“The Reiss shows are all good, and were in Portland six years ago under the auspices of the Woodmen of the World at the park blocks,” the newspaper noted in a later article.
Nearly 5,000 people — described by reporters as a “merry, jostling crowd” — attended the first fair. Oregon City, Canby and other communities closed businesses early and crowded into whatever automobiles they could find that were headed up to Gladstone.
The produce, livestock and other exhibits that were submitted for judging drew rave reviews, with O.E. Freytag of Fern Ridge Farm earning the most bragging rights as he took home no fewer than 34 blue ribbons for his vegetables.
“It has been my good fortune,” said U.S. Sen. Charles William Fulton in an address to county fair-goers, “to have visited nearly every section of the state during the last few months … and it really does one’s heart good to see these splendid products of the soil. You have a fair here that a few years ago would have been considered great for the State Fair, and Clackamas County is certainly to be congratulated.”
One of the biggest draws Friday night was the “baby show” — not the incubator — but a lighthearted event in which children and families were invited to be judged on various merits.
“The rivalry of the mothers was keen, and the strife among the parents for their youngsters caused much good-natured comment,” The Oregonian recorded. “Mrs. McDonald won the premium offered for the largest family on the grounds, and she exhibited 11 fine specimens of the young American.”
One can only hope her prize was an award-winning pumpkin or other squash, to feed all those hungry mouths.
The Nat Reiss shows ended with a bang, their ever-popular Mardi Gras and Masque Carnival (hear that, guys, they were even wearing masks back in 1907 — it’s not that weird). The gates were open till dark to welcome all to a “confetti battle royal” and tour the blaze of lights along the midway.
It did not take long — less than two weeks, in fact — for the city of Canby to have designs on bringing the Clackamas County Fair into its borders.
At a meeting of Canby citizens on Oct. 22, it was “decided to endeavor to have the permanent location of this exposition held at Canby.” According to newspapers of the day, it was further decided that “Canby could provide the accommodations needed and raise all funds necessary for the successful conduct of the fair, and committees were appointed to arrange the matter.”
They already had a spot picked out: more than 40 acres were available on what is now 4th Avenue east of town, on land once owned by Supreme Court Chief Justice Aaron Wait and still held by his descendants.
It took almost a year for the Canby Development League and its 24 citizen members, led by R.S. Coe, to get things “arranged,” but they were ultimately successful in bringing the fair to its permanent home in 1908, in what would soon be forever established as the Clackamas County Fairgrounds.
Groundbreaking was held in late July of that year, the Canby Tribune records, to begin construction on the fairgrounds’ buildings and a first-class race track.
“From the enthusiasm displayed, it is safe to predict that this will be one of the most successful county fairs in the state of Oregon,” an unbiased reporter later wrote.
Arriving at the grounds on that Monday, July 20, the party halted under the cool shades of drooping firs and could not help but make remarks on the momentous occasion.
“Judge Dimick, as did all the other speakers, advised the people of Canby 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,” the Tribune said. “He told the wonderful advantages to the county such an institution would be, and how it could be made a success or a failure.”
A “Judge Ryan” was said to be “equally as fervent in his advocacy of measures that will ensure the complete success of the fair.” 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.”
Well, of course, we have much, much more to tell you about the history of our wonderful Clackamas County Fair. But that’s all the time we have today. The rest will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.
Photo courtesy the Canby Historical Society.
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