Exploring the Oregon State Fair: Introduction

A State Fair poster pokes fun at President Richard Nixon
A circa 1970 State Fair poster pokes fun at President Richard Nixon. (Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center)

Early Years

Take yourself back to the 1850s. Imagine no television, no computers, no smart phones, no internet, no radio, no recorded music, no electricity, no airplanes, no automobiles, and long periods of isolation with only dirt roads that turned to muddy ruts after rains. Without today’s fingertip access to endless entertainment options, the attraction and excitement of going to a state fair must have been irresistible.

The Oregon State Agricultural Society and the Oregon Fruit Growers Association seized on this idea in 1861 to establish the first official Oregon State Fair on the banks of the Clackamas River near Gladstone. The next year, the fair moved to its current location in Salem and continued over the years to add acreage to its site to accommodate the growing crowds.

Governor Tom McCall swings a mallet the State Fair
Governor Tom McCall uses a mallet to ring a bell opening the 1967 Oregon State Fair in Salem. (Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center)
Oregon was overwhelmingly agricultural in the 1800s and the State Fair offered farmers and ranchers an opportunity to share ideas about crops, new techniques and new equipment. They could show off their prize pumpkins and race their fastest horses. Family members could win ribbons and bragging rights for their pickles, apple pies and quilts. Everyone could marvel at exhibitions of amazing new inventions such as the telephone and gramophone in 1877.

Advances and Growth

Transportation advances played a key role in the growth of the State Fair in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The expansion of railroads made it easier for fair visitors to get to and from Salem while new streetcar service soon would take people right to the entrance gates. The rise of automobile travel and the rapid paving of roads further accelerated attendance at the fair beginning in the 1920s. Participants could travel more easily from far corners of the state and truck their livestock for exhibition.

A graphic of a 1970 State Fair hat
A 1970 State Fair decal. (Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center)
Entertainment options quickly expanded at the fair as well. The state took over operations in 1885 and began investing tax money into its programs and facilities. A package of 1893 improvements saw the building of a mile-long oval track for horse racing, a wildly popular draw to the fair. Traveling vaudeville troupes performed their zany variety show mix of comedy, slapstick, music and more. Circuses and musical band concerts added to the entertainment. 

Carnival attractions grew more elaborate over the decades with death-defying rides and unbelievable oddities. Carnival barkers on the midway beckoned the next guy to “step right up” and prove to his sweetheart that he was the strongest, the best shot or the most skillful. Those who scored highest at these games won the biggest stuffed animals, a sure sign of prowess. Food booths offered fairgoers treats that came to be central to the identity of the State Fair—from cotton candy to corndogs.

Today's Fair

A 1970 ticket for a free ride
This ticket was good for one ride at the 1970 State Fair. (Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center)
Today, the State Fair continues to extol the virtues of rural living and agricultural values. While the number of people directly engaged in agriculture has plummeted in the state, most Oregonians still feel a deep connection to the heritage and cultural roots that are celebrated once a year in Salem. The event remains relevant because all of us can learn more about ourselves from the sights, sounds and smells of the Oregon State Fair—a place, but even more, a community.

This Web exhibit, based on a gallery exhibit at the Oregon State Archives, shows significant features of the State Fair over the years. These include livestock exhibits, contests, food, horse racing, entertainment, oddities, rides and games. Captioned photographs, combined with related audio files and links to videos, take viewers on a tour of a quintessentially Oregon event. So grab your ticket and click the “Next” link below to enter the wacky, weird and wonderful world of the Oregon State Fair over the decades!

Learn More

Preview the book The Oregon State Fair by Steven Robert Heine via Google Books.