History of the San Juan County Fair

100 years of Agriculture and Education

By Nancy Larsen

The first San Juan County Fair was held in 1906 in a warehouse on the waterfront in Friday Harbor during the first week of October, a time when agriculture was flourishing in the islands. Under the auspices of the San Juan Farm Bureau, farmers and county residents alike were proud to show off the “splendid products of the soil,” the Islander reported. The event drew a crowd of over 1,200, not just islanders, but visitors from Bellingham and Anacortes who came by the steamer, Whatcom Fair officials later boasted that 1,025 tickets were sold, with $302.50 in gate receipts.

On display during the first Fair were the county’s prolific crops: fruits, flowers, grains and grasses. Aside from “ordinary products of our fertile farms and fruitful orchards,” the paper reported that Orcas Island farmer P. Bostian exhibited tobacco, a crop he was experimenting with. Other farmers were trying out walnuts and chestnuts, quinces and citron, also displayed that year. The livestock exhibit included some of the best teams of horses driven by the county’s farmers.

A department called “Ladies Work” highlighted the fine embroidery, tatting, quilting, rag rugs, patching and darning, hemstitching, painting and other homemaking skills of the women of San Juan County. John McCormick’s stunning photographs of the islands captivated viewers.

San Juan County farmers were then eager to show off their best crops at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, winning an award for Best Cherries. Although farmers had banded together as the San Juan Farm Bureau, meeting regularly on Shaw Island, it wasn’t until 1921 that another Fair was held in the San Juan Canning Company’s warehouse. Anticipating large attendance, fair organizers shored up the floor to accommodate not only visitors and participants but the many “fine bred cattle” to be displayed, so many that this Fair was jokingly called the “Bull Fair.”

Islanders also displayed: horses, sheep and swine. Poultry farmers showed off their turkeys, another successful farm commodity in the county. A baby beauty contest judged by San Juan Island’s Dr. Capron — who pronounced Florence May Madden the winner — was a crowd pleaser. The 1921 Fair was such a huge hit that it has been held yearly since then.

Islanders sought a permanent location for the Fair, and considered several sites — 10 acres on Shaw, the area in Friday Harbor called Kwan Lama, and its current location — before purchasing the heavily timbered 10-acre site in 1923 for $1,200. Volunteers blasted stumps, plowed and leveled the ground. It took 10 or 12 teams of horses to get the site ready for fencing. Community members turned out to erect the main building, the stock buildings, and the Pioneer Log Cabin. On October 8, 1924 the first Fair was held in its present location, less than one year after work began. A highlight of the 1924 Fair was the “gun that killed the pig.” A chartered boat from Bellingham brought 200 people to the Fair; the total attendance was 1,200.

The goal of the Farm Bureau was to promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and residents of San Juan County. Now 100 years later the San Juan County Fair Board continues to encourage, promote and preserve the county’s agricultural activities, and to educate the public during this once-a-year opportunity. Participants showcase their diverse skills, talents, and accomplishments in the areas of 4H and youth activities, agriculture, arts and crafts, environmental stewardship, public service organizations, and local industry, all in an atmosphere of fun and excitement.

Since 1924 the San Juan County Fair has grown from a two-day affair to four days chock-full of activities, now drawing 22,000 visitors. And the fair grounds have also grown; the Fair Board purchased 3.78 acres adjacent to the horse barn in December 2005.

In 2006 we celebrated the Fair’s official Centennial Celebration.