By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Theres the Baker County Fair in Halfway which will celebrate its 80th anniversary this Labor Day weekend and theres the Baker County Fair, held annually in Baker City in early August.
It may strike some people odd that a county Bakers size or any other size, for that matter would hold two such labor-intensive events, but its been that way for so long that the people who put on Halfways event can barely remember how it came to be that the county holds two fairs.
Not competing fairs, they say, but two fairs nonetheless.
Doesnt the existence of two fairs diminish the number of FFA and 4-H club members who can show their animals? Does it limit the number of prospective crafters, sewers, bakers and canners? And, from a financial standpoint, does it keep the crowds down at one or both of the venues?
Surprisingly enough, says Halfway fair manager Nellie Forrester, the answer is no. Her event annually brings between 6,000 and 8,000 people to Baker Countys scenic northeastern corner.
The Baker City event drew a record crowd this year, fair manager Bonnie White said, although the exact gate was hard to gauge, she said.
According to Forrester, area 4-H and FFA members have learned to show animals at both fairs. The Baker County Fair Board (on which Forrester sits) has supported the Halfway effort with $5,500 every year to pay for ribbons, judges and premiums. And the fairs are different enough the Halfway fair, for example, has a three-day Panhandle Rodeo that many people are drawn to both events.
Since it comes nearer harvest time, people can show more mature vegetables and fruits at the Halfway event, Forrester said. Fair-goers tell her that they attend because of the lushness of that part of the county, because the fair is held over the Labor Day weekend, or because they were in town anyway to attend one of the many family and school reunions that pop up on the calendar at this time every year.
People want to come to Halfway to get that county fair atmosphere, Forrester said. All the ranchers pitch in to help, and all the kids, too. In fact, theyre working all (last) weekend to get the place spruced up.
That county fair atmosphere, she said, is most readily apparent during the chicken scramble, set for Saturday afternoon. A batch of chickens are let go, and a gaggle of children chase the pullets around trying to catch them. Those that succeed get to take their prize home.
Memories illustrate fair history
Estella Summers, 90, says she has attended most of Halfways 79 fairs. Originally billed as the Pine Valley fair, the Halfway fair became the Baker County Fair during the Great Depression, she said, when the fair board asked Halfway fair officials to build their event into the county fair.
Grandstands were erected out of donated lumber. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed show barns and turned their own barracks into exhibit halls.
Summers said she has a picture somewhere of the first fair in Halfway. Instead of a brand-new pavilion as the 2001 edition will sport the only structure visible isnt a building at all. Its a giant tent, Summers said.
As a girl, Summers looked forward to the fair for all the usual reasons and one thats not so obvious.
We used to have the fair in late September, and it was cold, she recalls of the Halfway Fair circa 1922. We always went shopping for a new coat just before the fair.
It's better now that its held earlier, she said of the weekends expected balmy temperatures, but I miss getting my new coat.
For 44 years, Summers worked at a post she calls the needlework department, preparing sewn items for display.
In those days, I was so busy, I never got to see the rodeo, she said. I still never miss it, but I enjoy the quiet of the exhibit hall.
She said she plans to attend the Baker County Fair at Halfway once again this year.
People love this fair
Bill Bird, who along with Louise Sly will be grand marshal at the parade at noon Monday, Sept. 3, is one of two living members (the other is Walt Forsea) of the Northwest Rodeo Producers. Thats the group that in 1962 put up the money to purchase rodeo stock when the stock producer died unexpectedly.
We had to borrow money and sign personal notes, he said. Then it took us four or five years to pay the debt off, and we put on extra rodeos here and held boat races in Eagle Valley to pay it.
He moved to the Pasco, Wash., area to farm 30 years ago, but came back to Halfway because of the atmosphere of the whole valley, he said.
I think thats why people love this fair because of that atmosphere, and because of the beauty of this valley.
When asked about any hard feelings that might persist between people who host the two fairs, Forrester delicately answers, We try to keep any hard feelings aside, but I think if Baker County told us we couldnt hold our fair, wed probably do it anyway.
Our county is spread so thin, itd be a shame if we all couldnt get along.