The History of the Thurston County Fair: Bringing the Community Together Since 1871

thurston county fair history
Members of the South Bay Girls Canning Club pose with their homemade goods at the fair in the early twentieth century. Photo Courtesy of Ann Shipley


By Gale Hemmann

thurston county fairImagine it’s the year 1871. As you rode to the fair with your family in your horse-drawn wagon, you would probably be excited. This was the first local fair and a big deal. Washington was not yet a state, and the fair aimed to get settlers excited about moving to the area by showcasing the best livestock, industry and other goods Washington Territory had to offer. You could look forward to seeing a poultry exhibit, dancing, and socializing.

Fast-forward to 2014. We enjoy the Thurston County Fair every year for its elephant ears, live music and modern carnival rides. We also still enjoy echoes of earlier days, such as 4-H animal exhibits, crafts, and baked goods. While it may be a popular local attraction (drawing over 30,000 visitors a year), few people know about its long and storied history.

thurston county fair history
Members of the South Bay Girls Canning Club pose with their homemade goods at the fair in the early twentieth century. Photo Courtesy of Ann Shipley

Did you know that the fair has been held in 17 different locations? Or that, in the early days, you could win a ribbon for the “best bowl of oatmeal?” I learned this, and many other facts, by talking with Ann Shipley, the Fair Board President.

A Labor of Love: Unearthing the History of the Fair

Shipley has spent over a decade capturing the Thurston County Fair’s history. She spent ten years researching and writing a book about it, and has a wealth of knowledge on the subject. I ventured out to the fairgrounds to meet with Shipley on a busy pre-fair day this summer.

She’s been involved with the fair since 1976, when her daughter was in 4-H. Shipley has served as a volunteer on the Fair Board for over twenty years. She says a conversation about the fair’s origins sent her searching through decades of microfiche at the local library.

Serving as fair historian has been a labor of love. She says what’s most fun about the project has been all the quirky facts she’s found along the way. She also notes that the fair reflects changes in technology over the years, from the advent of the car to the modern sewing machine.

Shipley showed me around the fair museum, a small building on the fairgrounds that is definitely worth a visit. Among the carefully-preserved items are historic photos and fair ribbons dating back to the 1930s.

So, ThurstonTalk readers, I invite you to enter a time machine with me. Can you imagine being at the fair during each of these years?

thurston county fair history
Live animal exhibits were a huge draw at early fairs. These ostriches were exhibited at the 1913 fair, which was held where the Lacey Post Office now stands. Photo Courtesy of Ann Shipley

Through the Years – Thurston County Fair Highlights:

  • 1871: The first fair is held in the Columbus Building, now the home of the 4th Ave Tavern in downtown Olympia. (You can still see “Columbus Building” engraved above the doorway today.) The upstairs was filled with exhibits of birds and fowl, including Captain Percival’s pet cockatoo. Downstairs, fair-goers could take in agricultural exhibits and dance.
  • 1874: The fair is held at Sylvester Park (then called Town Square). Large livestock arrive for the first time. Entertainment included both horse races and foot races. Captain Percival exhibited his famous cranberries.
  • 1876: In the year the phone was invented, the fair was robust with contests offering cash prizes. You could win the category of “best handmade shoes,” “best two-horse wagon,” or “best collection of canaries.” Reflecting tastes of the period, you could also win “best catsup and chow chow” (a pickled vegetable dish) or “best variety of pickled fish.” Whether it was woolen stockings, bricks, or model ships, the fair had a category for just about everything. Prizes ranged from $1.00 for “best crochet shawl” to $2.00 for “best display of candies and confections” to $5.00 for “best collection of grain.”
  • 1879: A newspaper advertisement tells us that you can enjoy a “grand display” on the “superb fair grounds near Olympia.” You are promised “trials of speed” by horses over “one of the finest race courses on the West Coast.”
  • 1881: After a decade of construction, the first fairgrounds were completed, where the Tumwater Safeway now sits.
  • 1882: A baseball tournament is held with cash prizes. An ad boasts that “ample provision has been made for the display of mechanical handiwork, farm products and livestock.”
  • 1884: The fair is held in Chehalis, and will be the last fair held for over a decade.
  • 1891-1901: No fair is held locally. Local residents sent their wares to be judged at bigger fairs in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland.
  • 1912: The same year that the Titanic sinks, the Washington chapter of 4-H is established, which will be a staple of the fair for over a century to come.
  • 1913: Everyone’s focus is on World War I. The fair is held at the site of today’s Lacey Post Office, where the Wonderwood Track once stood.
  • 1926: The Thurston County Fair is back after over a decade of hiatus. It is held in Tenino, where it will stay for several years. In 1927, the fair closes with a wedding ceremony for a local couple.
  • 1937-1946: During World War II and its aftermath, it is difficult to hold a fair, but 4-H groups hold camps at Millersylvania State Park and local schools instead. The fair is renamed “Harvest Festival.” The official fair is back in 1946.
  • 1956: With Elvis topping the charts, the 1956 fair was held at the South Bay Grange. A newspaper advertisement boasted that the fair would have “253 animals” on display and “rides for the children.”
  • thurston county fair history
    This fair advertisement from 1960 cheerfully entices fair-goers with promises of many animals and exhibits. While times have changed, these two elements of the fair have remained popular. Photo Courtesy of Ann Shipley

    1957: The fair concludes with an “all livestock parade,” which is a huge hit – there were over 630 4-H entries.

  • 1958: The fair is moved to its current location near Long Lake, where it has been ever since.
  • 1964: The fair builds the innovative new Cloverleaf Building. Shaped like a four-leaf clover, the building is unique but presents many architectural challenges, and is soon dismantled.
  • 1970: During the year the Beatles disbanded, the food court was built on the fairgrounds. A pet porcupine escaped an exhibit and was not found.
  • 1970s: A highlight of the fair during this decade was the landing of a hang-glider on the fair grounds. The fair board voted to purchase a then-high-tech adding machine for the fair manager.
  • 1976: In honor of the United States Bicentennial, the play 1776 was performed twice at the fair.
  • 1983: The Miss Thurston County pageant was held on Opening Day at the fair.
  • 1990s: During the decade of the internet’s rise, the Horticulture Building is added to the fair and the Horse Arena is updated. A layered cake contest is held.
  • 2000s: In 2003, “Pocket Pets” are added as a new 4-H animal category. Dog exhibits are gaining popularity, and a “homemade dog biscuit” category is featured one year. The new air-conditioned Expo Hall is built.

Bringing the Fair into the Modern Age

As the Fair staff and volunteers ramp up for the 2014 fair (July 30-August 3), they have both traditional and modern points of interest planned for you.

Shipley notes that it is an exciting challenge to bridge the traditional and the new, and to keep appealing to new segments of the community. This year, alongside the classic 4-H exhibits and rides, you will also find a first-ever tattoo contest. There will also be an “Author’s Corner” showcasing local writers and a “bee-friendly garden.”

thurston county fair
The Thurston County Fair has featured rides such as the carousel since at least the 1950s. Though there weren’t cell phones with cameras then, the children’s delight has no doubt remained the same. Photo Courtesy of Thurston County Fair

So, as you take in the fair this year with your friends or family, take a moment to step back in time in your imagination. Enjoy browsing the museum, and the chance to discuss this piece of local history with kids (or just impress friends with your knowledge). You can learn more about the fair’s history here, and by purchasing Shipley’s book, Memories: The History of the Thurston County Fair.

Shipley notes that the fair would love to gather even more photos and memorabilia from past fairs for their collection. If you have any items of interest, you can contact the fair office.

A sign that the fair is thoroughly in the modern era? You can check out their website or “like” their Facebook page.

Thurston County Fair – “Fun for the Whole Herd”

July 30-August 3, 2014

At the Thurston County Fairgrounds

Get information about admission here and view the daily event calendar here.


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