In the fall of 1918, preparations for the sixth annual Hog and Dairy show in Umatilla County were put to a screeching halt by the Spanish Influenza pandemic.
The Hermiston Herald at the time wrote that the fair was set to be far more attractive and stupendous than any of the other preceding shows.
“The withering hand of a widespread infectious disease had to step in at an inopportune time and put a stop to these well laid plans that meant so much to the dairymen, hog raisers, and agricultural people of this community, who have yearly taken pride in exhibiting the products of their farms.” wrote the Herald that October.
Today, the Hog and Dairy Show is a county fair — the Umatilla County Fair, to be exact — and its growth shows no sign of slowing. Its attendance, said this year’s grand marshal Dan Dorran, has blossomed over the decades as the week’s attendance reaches up to 100,000 people.
While hogs, dairy, and other farm products still star in the fair each year, the passing of time represents a change in the way the fair presents itself.
“It is a change, yes. It’s just that the whole change became an emphasis away from what a farmer may raise in terms of livestock, to what the community is doing,” said Don Miller, a former fair board member who is still involved in organizing.
Indeed, since the inception of the agricultural exhibits, the fair has expanded to showcase a variety of other goods. From hand sewn crafts to metal work, to even more recently, robotics.
“We always try to stay current with what’s going on in the county,” Miller said. “Ten years ago, robotics was not an issue for us.”
The Early Years
During the 1920s, the Hog and Dairy Show eventually became known as the Umatilla Project Fair.
“The Umatilla Project Fair is held primarily for the purpose of encouraging more profitable agriculture on the Greater Umatilla Project,” wrote the Hermiston Herald in 1929.
Today, watermelon might be number one on Hermiston’s produce list. But things were different almost 100 years ago.
“Especially striking,” wrote the Hermiston Herald in 1921, “were the apples and honey. No visitor could go away without knowing that Hermiston is one of the best apple countries in the United States.”
The first-ever caged bird show in the state was hosted at the fair during the 1920s. Judges ranked parrots, canaries and other caged birds on cleanliness, appearance and general health.
Today, the fairgoers experience carnival rides, evening concerts and daytime entertainers such as magicians and jugglers. But in 1929, people were looking forward to entertainment like air stunts, wing walking, trapeze and parachute dropping. A dance with a live orchestra capped off the fair, which at the time was a two-day weekend event.
The 1930s marked a push and pull for the Umatilla County Project Fair. In 1930, the fair made arrangements to have a merry-go-round, and an airplane which people could pay to take rides on. The following year, according to Ronald E. Ingle, author of The Taming of The Desert, windy weather knocked down the fairground barns and a display building was built in 1932.
The Project Fair of 1933 hosted its first rodeo.
The Hermiston Herald noted in 1935 that there was “considerable interest in the honey industry”. Fair-goers attended tug-of-war matches, rolling pin throwing contests, greased pole races and eventually Model-T races. By the turn of the decade, the fair’s scope was expanded, and it was labeled its modern title: The Umatilla County Fair.
Leading with Legacy
What happens at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center today might be a far cry from the car races and airplane rides of yesteryear, but the spirit of the fair remains.
“There’s some things that have changed and some things that have not changed,” Miller said.
Dorran and Miller both have a history with fair dating back through the decades. Both began as student exhibitors and eventually became board members who served for over 20 years apiece.
Miller has lived in Milton-Freewater for over 70 years.
“I haven’t missed any fair since 1962,” he said.
Dorran, who grew up in Hermiston, remembers walking his steer from Seventh Street to the old fairgrounds downtown as a child. He grew up cleaning stalls during the celebrations and exhibiting metalworking projects.
“My family had always been involved,” he said.
His mother participated heavily when Dorran was growing up, and his grandfather was a part-time fair manager during the 1950s. He served in the army and lived in Alaska for 14 years. By the time he found his way back to the Umatilla County Fair in the 1990s, Miller had a decade of being a board member behind him.
Both men have since retired.
“Now we’re just old guys, here to give to any help that we can,” Miller joked.
Michael Davis, who owns Davis Amusement Cascadia, said the business’s relationship with the fair goes back at least 50 years. The Umatilla County Fair holds the family-owned company’s oldest contract.
“We grow with the event. We’ve expanded the number of rides over the years. Of course, now we’ve made the leap with them over to the EOTEC facility,” Davis said.
Davis, 44, said that this will be at least his 43rd fair.
“Every year of my life,” he said. “It’s been important to my whole family. The relationships we’ve built in Umatilla County are second to none.”
For many, Aug. 6 through 10 represents a week of remembering and reuniting.
“The people who come to the fair may not have seen each other for 12 months. They just talk to each other like it’s the day before. It’s truly a fair family which exists in Umatilla county,” Miller said.