This year Washington’s state fairs were back in the swing. View our interactive photo essay. The full-text version follows…
Syracuse, New York, hosted the country’s first state fair in 1841, featuring attractions that still draw crowds. Produce displays, livestock exhibitions, blue-ribbon pies, pumpkins, and ponies are exhibited alongside advancements in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—from 3-D printing to robots and drones. Washington State University is connected to all fairs across the state that host these timeless experiences.
The DELIGHTS OF the FAIR bring together folks to celebrate community—and have some fun. At state, county, and local fairs, you could pilot a virtual airplane or ride a camel, marvel at a homemade quilt or giant squash, get lost in a hay-bale maze or admire piglets.
There’s nothing like the thrill of the midway—amusement rides, panoramic views from the Ferris wheel, carnival games and their vendors calling to potential players. Win an oversized stuffed animal for your sweetheart. Watch a child score a goldfish, swimming in a clear plastic bag.
Fairs in Washington state in 2019 attracted 3.3 million people, featured 68,000 exhibitors, garnered 136,000 hours from 5,600 volunteers, and offered an economic boost of $397 million in business revenue and $10 million in taxes.
Fair season runs March to October. From their agricultural roots and old-fashioned fun to showcases of modern creativity and innovation, Washington’s fairs serve up a slice of Americana and tradition. Here, we celebrate their timeless aesthetic.
Fisher scones debuted at the 1915 Western Washington Fair in Puyallup and remain a favorite at what’s now the Washington State Fair. Patrons still enjoy classics—hand-dipped ice cream, elephant ears, deep-fried candy bars, funnel cakes, curly fries, corn dogs, other foods served on a stick—along with Hawaiian-style poke and new-in-2022 Glow Tea served in a lightbulb-shaped to-go cup. Some years, fairgoers have even gotten to taste alligator burgers, kangaroo sausages, and Manchurian scorpions.
Time goes fast at the fair. But, oh, what a ride—not just the Classic Coaster, Extreme Scream, Giant Slide, or all the amusements in Thrillville and Sillyville—but all of it. The entertainment. The activities. The oh-so-many things to see and do since Washington’s fairs first started.
People have been “doing the Puyallup” since 1900. Yakima’s Central Washington State Fair originated in 1892, and the roots of the Spokane County Interstate Fair reach to 1886. In Walla Walla, the fair dates to 1866. The King County Fair in Enumclaw goes back even further—to 1863.
Early days featured vaudeville and high-wire acts, fiddler contests, a three-ring circus, log rolling, horse racing, and something known as auto polo in which Ford Model Ts pushed a ball between them toward a goal. There were dances too. In the 1930s, Puyallup’s dance hall was a main attraction. Each dance cost five cents.
These days, entertainment includes concertgoing with musicians and bands from a wide array of genres—country, rock, R&B. Washington fairs have brought in Bob Hope, Clint Black, Michael Bolton, Boyz II Men, Faith Hill, Wayne Newton, John Denver, Weird Al Yankovic, Wynonna Judd, Dolly Parton, the Doobie Brothers, Los Lobos, the Goo-Goo Dolls, the Beach Boys, Blake Shelton—too many to name.
Fairs are—and historically have been—centers of commerce, entertainment, and education. Alongside artfully arranged Grange mosaics of apple, onions, potatoes, and other crops, Washington fairgoers have been able to see polar bears, tigers, and an exhibit on “bug-ology.” There are awards for photography and scrapbooking as well as traditional home arts such as canning, quilting, and pie-making. Buy a prized pig, goat, or dairy or beef cow from a 4-H and FFA kid. Or, at least, watch the animals shown in the arena after months of caring and feeding. Check out the other deals too—on hot tubs, mattresses, cookware, even cars and RVs.
Some fairs, such as the Central Washington State Fair, dedicate entire buildings to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, offering interactive games, displays, and lessons. The 1927 Pioneer Hall at Yakima’s State Fair Park features a 3-D printer along with straw rockets, a shadow wall, engineering challenges, and more.
From 4-H and Extension to alumni who work for fairs or serve on fair boards, WSU connections to fairs across the state reach far and wide and deep. Greg Stewart (’71 Ag.) was hired in 1972 by the Central Washington Fair Association as assistant general manager and retired in 2019 as general manager and fair board president. In 2018, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Washington State Fair Association. He was also chairman of and honored by the International Association of Fairs & Expositions, receiving the organization’s Hall of Fame Award in 2010. Erin Gurtel (’97 Comm.) is the director of the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. Her predecessor, Rich Hartzell (’71 Ani. Sci.) retired in 2019 after 13 years on the job. He also sits on the Washington State Fairs Commission along with Stewart and—as of summer 2022—these Cougs: Tim Schneider (’83 Ag. Ed., ’90 MS Voc. Tech. Ed.), Paul Kuber (’01 PhD Ani. Sci.), Lori Williams (’03 Ag. Econ.), and Ron Crawford (’65 Ag. Ed, ’75 Ag. Ed.). In fact, at that time, six of the eight commissioners were Cougs.
Some fairs are recognizing all the sights and sounds can provide a sensory overload for people with autism and sensory-processing differences. The Spokane County Interstate Fair instituted Sensory Day for folks with sensory sensitivities. The special fair day features a touch-and-feel zone, critter-cuddle area, opportunity to meet a comfort dog, and chance to enjoy carnival rides without lights or sounds.
“One of the things we strive to do is to stay relevant. To stay relevant, we’ve got to keep up with what’s going on. One of our key functions is to educate. We think fairs provide the largest outdoor classroom.”
—Washington State Fairs Commissioner Greg Stewart ’71
Video Robert Hubner
Find the fairs
Map of all the fairs in Washington state (ArcGIS map)