By Isaac Bonnell
The largest and longest-running party in Whatcom County kicks off Aug. 16. How big is this party? More than 220,000 people attended the six-day event last year. There are farm animals, carnival rides, more food than you can imagine and big-name musical acts.
This is the Northwest Washington Fair, and it comes around for its 100th presentation this year.
A lot has changed since the fair was started in 1911 by a group of Lynden merchants. Back then, admission was 25 cents and the total population of Whatcom County was around 50,000. Now the fair sees nearly that many people in a single day.
“One way it hasn’t changed is that its roots are still in agriculture,” said Fair Manager Jim Baron.
Though the fair has grown to include a Ferris wheel, a demolition derby and evening concerts, the No. 1 attraction at the fair is still the farm animals, Baron said. According to a survey of fair attendees last year, 37 percent said the farm animals were their favorite thing at the fair, 17 percent said the food and 13 percent voted for the rides.
“We try to have lots of animals because that’s one of the biggest draws for the fair,” Baron said. “But my favorite thing about the fair is the variety. If you take one piece out, it’s just not the same.”
Indeed, there is something about the combination of sights and smells at the fair that is unlike any other event. Putting on this event is no small feat — it takes more than 300 temporary employees to put on the fair.
The fair is run by the Northwest Washington Fair Association, a nonprofit that took over operation of the fair from Whatcom County in the 1990s. The organization has a full-time staff of six who work year-round scheduling bands, organizing 4H shows and working with other groups that rent the fairgrounds.
“During the summer, there are at least three events every weekend running simultaneously,” Baron said.
Good for business
No fair would be complete without all the vendors, who spend hours doing product demonstrations, spinning prize wheels, and offering special fair discounts.
For appliance and furniture store DeWaard & Bode, which has a fairly large 10-foot by 30-foot booth, the fair is chance to get more exposure in the county and to Canadian customers, who made up 9 percent of overall attendance last year.
“It gives us a chance to reconnect with our original customer base, back when we were located in Lynden,” said store manager Curt Grady. “Fair attendees may not have an immediate appliance need, but when they do, we will be at the top of their mind.”
The company also makes a decent number of sales during the fair, enough to warrant coming back every year, Grady said.
For Bank of the Pacific, which sponsors the concerts at the grandstand, the fair is a chance to thank customers and support an event that focuses on agriculture and business.
“Bank of the Pacific also focuses on a lot of the same things in the banking realm,” said Lynden branch manager Glenn Powell. “It’s a real nice match for our sponsorship.”
As the grandstand sponsors, bank representatives will occasionally get to go onstage and welcome the crowd before the show begins, Powell said.
“The grandstand acts that they bring in are of real high quality and there’s not too many opportunities to have sponsorships like that where each evening 5,000 people attend and see our banner above the stage,” Powell said. “It’s just something that we’re very proud of.”
Celebrating 100 years
To mark the 100th fair, the fair association has put together a book that looks back at the history of the fair. It shows the oldest fair document, a booklet from the 1913 fair that says it’s the ‘Third Annual’ fair.
While compiling the book, the fair association tried to focus on the true meaning of the fair, Baron said.
“We tried to boil down the essence of the fair and we came up with five things: youth, community, agriculture, education and entertainment,” he said.
Copies of the book will be for sale at Rotary Hall, where historic photos and artifacts from previous fairs will be displayed. The fair will also have a laser light show each night after the grandstand concert to celebrate the anniversary.
So dust off that hat, iron your duds and go mosey around the fair.