With a population of 442,800, fifth-largest in the state, Clark County today can best be described as largely suburban, with a smaller urban core. But the Clark County Fair continues to honor our rural heritage.
There are still a few old-timers who can remember the days when dairying, prune growing and forestry were major pieces of our economy. Many adults who grew up here remember their first job picking berries at Erickson Farms, where strawberries now have been supplanted by luxurious homes.
The fair, which starts this morning with the traditional pancake breakfast, is one of the tangible connections to this not-all-that-distant past. Last year, 269,939 people visited the fair during its 10-day run. Helped by near-perfect weather, 2013's Clark County Fair was the best-attended in a decade.
Last year's fair also beat the 10-year-average for gate revenue ($821,066), carnival sales ($1.22 million) and food and beverage sales ($1.54 million.) It's one of the largest fairs in Washington, though dwarfed by the massive Washington State Fair at Puyallup, an urban fair which claimed more than 1 million visitors during its 17-day run in 2013.
Keeping the Clark County Fair relevant and affordable to families is a major challenge for the fair board and John Morrison, the fair's manager. County fairs started before the Civil War as a way to promote modern farming practices. In Clark County, the first fair was held in 1868 in Esther Short Park. The fair was later moved to Bagley Downs, where it stayed until 1928. For decades it has been on its current fairgrounds off of Northeast 179th Street, in view of Interstate 5.
With so few full-time farmers, promoting modern farming practices is much less important these days. In fact, for several years now the fair has contracted with out-of-county ranchers to bring in some of the cattle for city dwellers to see. But some of the traditional farm education groups — Washington State University Clark County Extension, to name one — are on hand to give advice on gardening, food preservation and other topics relevant to modern suburban life.
WSU Extension also runs 4-H programs, which provide hundreds of youths the chance to compete in everything from robotics to fashion to equestrian events. The 4-H slogan is "Learn by Doing," and participants at the fair will do everything from cooking meals to fitting and showing animals they have raised. On Aug. 9, some of the meat animals will be sold at the annual Junior Livestock Auction, giving 4-H and FFA members a significant sum of money they can save for college.
Of course, the fair doesn't have to be about learning to control stormwater runoff from your home or winning the blue ribbon for a prize cheesecake. There are concerts, motor sports including monster trucks and a demolition derby, and midway shows, which this year include a sea lion act and high-diving pirates.
There will be plenty to eat, of course, including the four basic food groups found at American festivals: deep fried, barbecued, sugared and on-a-stick. (Healthier choices are available, too.) And California-based Butler Amusements will operate the largest local carnival of the year every day, including a new ride modestly called the Freak Out.
While that ride, which swings passengers 40 feet in the air, might be a little too much for those who remember our agricultural roots, it's sure to be a thrill for newer generations of Clark County residents to whom the fair remains a local tradition.