On September 16, 1876, in his new newspaper The Northern Star, underemployed frontier lawyer Eldridge Morse (1847-1914) publicizes the first agricultural fair of Snohomish County, which was held two years earlier in the county seat, a small settlement also named Snohomish. Morse has brought a used printing press from Olympia to Snohomish and taught himself to set type. Drawing on his experience as a farmer, coupled with an imaginative sense of the county's agricultural potential and the inspirational drive of a community activist, Morse plants the roots responsible for what will become the Evergreen State Fair, held every August for 12 days in the Snohomish County city of Monroe.
The First Fairs
In his September 16, 1876, edition Morse reported, "Two years ago an impromptu citizens fair was held in our town on only a few weeks notice" ("Our County Fair"). The event was held in E. C. Ferguson's (1833-1911) Blue Eagle building in Snohomish, which had served as the county courthouse since it was built as a saloon in 1864.
Perhaps 500 citizens of the small riverside community, platted in 1871 on the Snohomish River a dozen miles upstream from where it empties into Puget Sound, participated in the first fair in 1874. It was a surprising success. Selected items were forwarded to the Territorial Fair of the Western Washington Industrial Association in Olympia, where Snohomish's display of fruits and vegetables won first place.
This achievement inspired the immediate establishment of the Snohomish County Agricultural Society in November 1874, which in turn led to the acquisition of 40 acres in Snohomish for a fairground near where much later the Snohomish Aquatic Center was built on Maple Street in 2014. Buildings were added just in time for the second fair (referred to as the "first fair" by Morse because it was the first organized by the society) in the fall of 1875, "held on Society fairgrounds near this place" ("Our County Fair").
Writing in the September 23, 1876, issue of his new newspaper, Morse made an eloquent pitch for participation in the second fair organized by the newly formed agricultural society:
"We often hear farmers say, 'It is no use for me to bring anything, all my neighbors can discount anything I can do.' That is not the main idea of a fair. We need an annual exhibition of the progress and development of our agricultural resources. Farmers from all parts of the county should come together, bring a fair sample of whatever they have, shake hands, form each other's acquaintance, exchange ideas, and not get miffed because somebody has a [b]igger pumpkin, a fatter calf, or a faster horse than all others. We repeat, bring a fair sample of every thing you have, and if someone else does make a better showing, it may be he is possessed of superior facilities, and has not done with the chance he had, as well as you. Come one and all. Come with your hands full, Come to participate and not to look on and be amused" ("The Fair").
Morse ended his 140-year-old plea with logic that speaks to modern ears:
"Farmers of Snohomish county, this is no travelling show, no Punch and Judy affair. Your individual honor is at stake. You have the means of making this exhibition an honor to the county. Ample preparations are being made to give you all a fair chance to advertise the county, attract emigration, as well as buyers from abroad. If you neglect this opportunity, don't growl at bad times and want of market. Show you that have got and can raise something to sell and buyers will be on hand. Come now turnout, and put to shame the drones and do nothings of our county" ("The Fair").
The Snohomish County Agricultural Society held four fairs between 1875 and 1878 and, at the close of each, the best exhibits represented the county in the Territorial Fair in Olympia, where they "took first prize for the best display of fruits and vegetables of any county in the whole Territory of Washington" (Snohomish County Tribune, September 2, 1910). In 1878, the society had less than $150 in debt on its 40-acre Fair Ground Addition to Snohomish when it sold the property during a financial panic and stopped holding fairs. The final issue of The Northern Star was published on May 3, 1879.
Snohomish County Fairgrounds
The port city of Everett on Puget Sound at the mouth of the Snohomish River was founded some two decades after the town of Snohomish, but soon grew to overshadow the older settlement upriver, wresting the county seat away in 1897. Everett held its first fair in 1899, located northeast of downtown. In 1911, the Everett Fairgrounds moved to a location near Silver Lake.
Despite the competition from Everett, fairs also continued to to be held in Snohomish. In 1909 and 1910, fairs put on by local Grange organizations were held in the old Snohomish armory on Union Street. A 1910 headline in the Snohomish County Tribune boasted "Grange Fair a Great Success." Scheduled for three days, the fair was extended another day by popular demand, a certain inspiration for establishment of the Snohomish County Fairgrounds in 1911.
Entrance to the eight-acre Snohomish County Fairgrounds was at 10th Street on the west side of Avenue D in Snohomish, a site that later (in 1947) would become the home of a Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) substation. How serendipitous it is, then, to learn that "the grounds and buildings will be brilliantly illuminated and the exhibits can be seen in the evening as well as during the day" (Snohomish County Tribune, September 22, 1911). Yet even the novelty of electric illumination was overshadowed by the size of the Main Building, 300 feet long and 50 feet wide, with an ell in the center measuring 30 by 50 feet.
The opening program for the first fair at the new fairgrounds featured the president of the Fair Association from Startup, the mayor and council of Snohomish, a Fair Association trustee from Monroe, the Master of the Marysville Grange, and representatives from the Commercial Club of Snohomish and the city schools. The Snohomish Cornet Band added old-fashioned pomp for the occasion.
The categories of competition followed the tradition begun in the first fairs and continued today, except for one: the Baby Show. Fifteen babies were entered in this contest. All were displayed by their mothers, who had the responsibility to make them laugh and gurgle as much as possible, "which combined with the vociferations of the unsuccessful mothers sounded like a full fledged carnival in operation" (Snohomish County Tribune, September 29, 1911).
One of three judges was Snohomish's William Whitfield (1846-1940). Whitfield was a historian and author of History of Snohomish County Washington, published in 1926, a two-volume effort that remains a vital source to this day. His qualification to serve as judge, however, was his name recognition as an elected county official beginning in the 1870s. At the time of the 1911 fair, Whitfield was serving as the county assessor.
In 1916, the lights were turned off at the last fair held at the county fairgrounds in Snohomish. The grand Main Building was eventually remodeled for livestock auctions held in the 1920s, by which time the Snohomish County Fairs had found a new home in Granite Falls.
County Fair in Granite Falls
The Granite Falls Historical Museum holds a complete copy of the quarter-inch-thick fair booklet titled Premiums List produced for the Sixth Annual Snohomish County Fair held in Granite Falls from September 28 to October 1, 1922. It includes an introduction to the fair written by Dr. Frank Chappell (1846-1925), who arrived in Granite Falls in 1893 as the town's first doctor. He also opened the first drug and hardware stores and was a published poet. Chappell places the population of the village at "1,000 inhabitants," then speaks to its location "in the midst of a well settled farming and dairying community, enterprising, go-ahead men as leaders" (Premiums List, 3).
Chappell echoed Eldridge Morse's writings in The Northern Star nearly 50 years earlier, describing the fair's "chief value" as "the getting together of the people, the products of the farm homes of the county and especially an effort to show our locally manufactured products, and to cultivate a friendliness and desire for co-operative work in securing conditions of mutual aid in our working problems and thus finding its value," and noting that school children and babies were featured along with produce: "See what the children are doing as shown by the school exhibitions of work done in an educational way, acquainting themselves with the modern methods of teaching, and satisfying themselves that it is right" (Premiums List, 3).
The Baby Shows of earlier fairs in Snohomish were replaced by the "Better Baby" movement, making infants sound rather like farm crops: "The effort to impart useful knowledge in regard to hygiene in our homes and schools, to impress such measures as tend to secure the best conditions for the growth and health of the children ... Stop! Look! Listen to this feature of the work" (Premiums List, 3).
The next page announces: "The exhibit in the Woman's building will be a surprise to you in many ways. The building itself is a tribute to the enterprise and executive ability of the women of our community, and we are assured of more and better work from them in coming exhibits" (Premiums List, 4).
A front-page headline in the August 29, 1929, Granite Falls Record boasted "13th Annual Fair to Open with Large Attendance." Three paragraphs in, a sub-head read "The Fair and the City," under which the text repeated Frank Chappell's words from the 1922 fair booklet ("13th Annual Fair ..."). That year was the last for Granite Falls to host the Snohomish County Fair.
Community Fairs in Monroe
Meanwhile, the first local fair in Monroe had been held at the I.O.O.F. Hall and grounds on North Lewis Street on September 4 and 5, 1903. According to an ad in the Monroe Monitor, published the previous month, "An exhibition of Farm Products, Farm Stock, the Arts and Sciences" were promised, along with a "Women's Department of Useful and Fancy Work" (Snohomish County Fairs, 5).
A second district fair was held the following year in the same location. Its program, published in the August 15, 1904, issue of the Monroe Monitor, promised: "The grounds have been enclosed and arrangements made to take care of all the stock that may be entered. Inside the hall is a maze of everything that is rare, interesting and the best in the land" (Snohomish County Fairs, 6).
Three decades later, on September 10 and 11, 1937, the Tualco, French Creek, and Cherry Valley Granges organized a Community Fair and Parade held in Monroe on East Main and Ferry streets. The Community Fairs, also known as Cavalcade of the Valleys referring to the Snohomish, Skykomish, and Snoqualmie river valleys, were held in Monroe for the next two years at the same location. By 1941 the Cavalcade was held on fairgrounds in the area of Park and Powell streets in Monroe for four days, September 11-14, 1941. The event offered exhibits of "Livestock, Agriculture, and Industries, along with Domestic Exhibits," and in addition the posters promised "4 Days of Fun and Frolic" or -- in other words -- "Outstanding Entertainment Each Day" (Snohomish County Fairs, 8).
While based on the format of a county fair, the event emphasized entertainment including a carnival. The Cavalcade of the Valleys was not held in 1942 or 1943 due to World War II, but before the war's end returned with exuberance in 1944 and 1945, judging by the copies of the posters included in the Monroe Historical Society's account.
Snohomish County Fair in Monroe
The Snohomish County Fair was first held in Monroe on September 5, 1946, on the fairgrounds at Park and Powell streets. It was the first of three county fairs held at the Monroe fairgrounds, with an increase in attendance each year. More than 200 head of cattle and horses made up the 1946 parade, which also included commercial and Grange floats. For the first time, participation by Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H Clubs was featured in ads produced by the Snohomish County Fair Association.
By 1948, the success of the fairs stretched the capacity of the existing fairgrounds and ambitious plans were begun that summer to relocate the fairgrounds northwest of Monroe to county property known as the Poor Farm, which had been established in 1893 to provide room and board to paupers.
"Evergreen State Fair"
Headlines in the September 1, 1949, edition of the Monroe Monitor proclaimed "Two Day Horse Show to Have Local Talent" and "F.F.A., 4-H to Open Show with Livestock," with the fair dedicated to "Youth Development" (Snohomish County Fairs, 14). This big move in 1949, to the former county Poor Farm land adjacent to the planned U.S. Highway 2 running through Snohomish County on its way east, called for a bigger name: "Evergreen State Fair."
As it turns out, there is no process administered by the Washington State Fairs Commission for promoting a county fair to a state one. On February 16, 1892, the state legislature authorized Yakima to hold the Washington State Fair, a move seen by many a consolation prize since Yakima was one of the cities that had recently lost out to Olympia in the competition to be the state capital. A bill creating the State Agricultural Fair, with an appropriation of $10,000, was passed the following year. By September 1894, the Yakima fairgrounds had a grandstand large enough to seat 2,000 people, a racetrack, a mile track, an exhibit hall, 100 horse stalls, and a three-story judges stand on 120 acres of land. Today, the historic fairgrounds in Yakima are home to the Central Washington State Fair. In 1913, the Valley Fair in Puyallup rebranded itself as the Western Washington Fair, and later the Washington State Fair.
Back in Monroe in 1949, the first Evergreen State Fair recorded: "Paid attendance 40,000, free 2,000; gate admissions (less tax) $22,000; grandstand day $2,000 and night $3,000; United American Shows Carnival $3,000; premiums $10,000. Attractions: Horse Show, Vaudeville Acts, Cattle Judging, Trail Riders, Snohomish County; duration four days and nights with good weather" ("Celebrating a Century...").
In 1964, Snohomish County took over the operation of the Evergreen State Fair, which by then had expanded to seven days. In 2017, the fair ran for 12 days, closing on Labor Day, and "continue[d] to rank in the top 25 fairs in the nation, based on attendance" ("Celebrating a Century...").