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Friday, September 5, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Puyallup: A Fair Gauge Of Change

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

If you're looking for the "Old Ladies Department" or hoping to enter the "Homeliest Man" or "Best Set of Complete Teeth" contests, you've got your dates wrong for the Western Washington Fair.

Right century, wrong decade and definitely the wrong social climate.

The 97-year history of the Puyallup Fair is a pretty good measure of how we've changed.

Most of us wouldn't know the best live chicken from the worst these days.

But we also wouldn't point out people's physical differences, as they did in 1906 when they awarded the largest woman on the grounds a barrel of flour.

Some changes at the fair are obvious.

The only ride in 1900 was a short-horn bull that would tolerate kids on his back, a far cry from the technical wizardry of this year's Double Arch Rocket Jumpers.

But changes in the underlying purpose of the fair are more subtle.

The Puyallup Fair, officially dubbed the Western Washington Fair in 1913, started as the "Valley Fair," a venue for showing off the fabulous produce and stock in the fertile Puyallup Valley.

As roads were paved from Seattle and Tacoma to Puyallup, the fair evolved to educate city slickers about how farmers produce food.

The next evolution will be more glaring. By the middle of next century, most kids will never see a cow or a pig except at the fair.

The 1997 Western Washington Fair starts today and runs through Sept. 21. Here's a synopsis of its history.

1900 to 1910:

Hair-pulling contests and headache powders

The first real excitement of the Puyallup Fair occurred when Lewis Alden Chamberlain burst into tears of relief on opening day, Oct. 4, 1900, at the sight of the second exhibit trotting up Main Street.

The 66-year-old Buckley farmer, "Dad" to anyone who knew him, had tested the idea of a farm fair in nearby Enumclaw the previous year and found it such a success that people came from "as far as 10

miles away."

He persuaded 64 people to put up a total of $82 to bankroll the Puyallup fair.

But it was well after midday before the first exhibit showed up, according to Val Dumond's excellent 1991 book, "Doin' The Puyallup," and the fair still was in grave doubt before the second exhibition - two wagons full of geese, ducks, chickens and calves - assured the fair a future.

As attendance on the last day reached 1,000 despite objections that the fair would be open on a Sunday, "Dad" Chamberlain predicted that in 30 years the fair would have a grandstand, race track, cow barn and women's exhibits.

(Twenty-two years later, nearing 90, he would stand in the new grandstand and declare himself an under-optimistic visionary.)

In 1902, space was made for a new invention, the automobile.

In 1906, the people of Puyallup voted against swapping the 10-acre site for 40 acres farther out, the last time the question of moving was ever raised for the fair, which now covers 160 acres in the heart of town.

Another 1906 highlight: the winner of the hair-pulling contest got a box of headache powders.

1910 to 1920: Scones discovered

Photos from this era show a game of auto polo played on a muddy track with Ford Model T's that occasionally succeeded in pushing a great big rubber ball toward a goal.

Fair boosters with a screaming siren on a bus drove over the planks and tide flats by way of Georgetown to wake Seattleites to the excitement of the fair.

Whole caravans formed over the next few years as Seattle and Tacoma vied for best attendance on their designated days. The caravans lasted until the 1930s when they began to resemble conga lines run amok.

Despite people's new love affair with motor vehicles, horses were a major draw.

The Klickitat Indians were persuaded to bring their best ponies to race against the Puyallups. Bettors placed 10 cents a race, but the unfortunate configuration of the track, short and round, meant there was no room to pass. Whoever started out first usually ended up first.

The fair was delayed until late fall in 1917 to accommodate harvest because so many able hands were off to war.

But the highlight of this era - and every era since - was the introduction of scones.

Fair President W.H. Paulhamus and his son and future fair president, Dwight, tasted jam on hot biscuits in a concession booth in San Francisco run by the Seattle-based Fisher Flour Company.

Back home, Paulhamus talked the Fishers into setting up a booth and using his family's jam.

In 1915, production at the fair deliberately was slowed to encourage lines so the scones would seem coveted. Today, 2,000 scones pop out every 10 minutes and lines need no help forming.

The 1920s: The `Old Ladies Department'?

Oddities were the hallmark of the 1920s right up until the stock market crash reminded people what it was like to be vulnerable.

Mrs. Gunning-Davis and her freak show included live "consolidated" twins and "Twentieth Century Enigmas," natives "captured in the wilds of western Australia."

A comedy act performed atop 42-foot poles. There was chariot racing, daredevil horse riding and tooth-suspending aerialists.

The Washington Co-Operative Association held an annual egg parade with little girls dressed as chickens.

Babies were given prizes for being the prettiest or having the curliest or reddest hair.

One note of political correctness: The "Old Ladies Department" was changed to "Ladies Over 60 Department."

Lights were added to the grandstand, and in 1929 the fair grew by 13 acres. Income zoomed to $220,000.

Just weeks after fairgoers were invited to "see how very rich their countryside really is," the stock market crashed.

The 1930s: Youngster Roy Rogers opens the show

By 1934, the unemployed got in for free. Many area farms could not take part because of hard times, but that made little dent in attendance.

According to Dumond, a merry-go-round that was first set up in 1923 became a regular ride in 1935. By the 1990s, it was one of only two left in the country and was valued at more than $1 million.

Famous Hollywood cowboy Hoot Gibson was the headliner for the 1935 grandstand show. In 1938, a youngster named Roy Rogers opened the show (he returned with his wife, Dale Evans, in 1973).

Dancers paid a nickel to dance to live bands even though the dancers were swept out of the hall at the end of each number by a huge braided rope pulled across the floor.

There was a scandal in 1938 when it was said that three Western Washington counties exhibited Eastern Washington produce and claimed it as their own.

The 1940s: Cable breaks on the Fly-O-Plane

By 1940, the parking lot for 7,500 automobiles was said to be the biggest north of San Francisco. Color films were a big draw in the Hobby Barn, and so novel was an entry form mailed from China that a newspaper wrote a story about the stamp.

The 313,348 people who attended the fair in 1941 turned out to be the last fairgoers for five years.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor at the end of that year, the fairgrounds were used as a relocation center for Japanese Americans, some of whom were forced to sell their Puyallup Valley land for 10 cents on the dollar.

(A monument by sculptor George Tsutakawa was erected on the fairgrounds just inside the main entrance in 1981.)

The first post-war fair in 1946 attracted 404,000 visitors, an increase attributed to people's hunger for entertainment and the area's population boom from the defense effort.

Eleven people were injured when the cable broke on the Fly-O-Plane ride in 1947.

Expansion of the fair included refrigeration for every food booth, a relief for the hundreds who had suffered food poisoning in earlier years.

The post-war boom meant a proliferation of adult toys. Displays included fancy cars, appliances and boats.

The 1950s: `Strange As It Seems'

A boom of a different sort influenced the 1950s.

Attention turned to kiddie rides and watching out for strollers. Cost for the roller coaster went up to 35 cents.

Schools closed for the entire day so kids could go to the fair. A single-day attendance record was set in 1950 at 70,000.

Rodeo footage was filmed on the grounds for the movie "Cowpoke," starring Robert Mitchum. Harold Everett of Auburn was featured on the show "Strange As It Seems," with a drawing of his 100 1/2-pound pumpkin that won a blue ribbon at the fair.

Bunks were added in 1951 for the 4-H, Future Farmers, Scouts and Campfire Girls, relieving them from having to sleep in livestock barns.

In the Golden Jubilee Fair of 1953, the Lost and Found Department reported 350 lost souls and 52 lost wallets returned to owners, plus one set of false teeth.

The 1960s: Beavers on the loose

Controversy and animal escapes plagued the decade.

Were the 4-Hers getting as much exhibit time as the FFA?

Who allowed that exhibit in the Dairy Barn of the cow with the transparent stomach?

What about that slap in the face to patriots, the art exhibit titled "Betsy Ross Revisited"?

Julia Ann Kaiser was named "Girl Poultryman of the Year" in 1965, evidence that nonsexist language hadn't caught up with changing times. Men competed in the women's department in cake baking and embroidery.

Even the animals revolted.

A Brahma bull headed straight to the Modern Living Building and had to be rounded up by old-fashioned cowboys.

Beavers from the Wildlife Building got out at night and toured the grounds, presumably in search of dropped scones.

But there were also needed improvements.

For years workers spread wood chips onto soggy pathways well into the night. Finally, in the late 1960s, the paths were blacktopped.

The fair lost 100,000 in attendance in 1962, the same year as the Seattle World's Fair. But in 1969 it set an all-time daily record of 78,255.

The 1970s: `Do the Puyallup' born

Fire broke out on the fairgrounds on June 14, 1970, the result of either an arsonist or faulty electricity.

Much of the grandstand, restaurants, art and flora buildings, part of the roller coaster and other concessions were destroyed. The loss was estimated at $1.25 million, of which $803,000 was covered by insurance.

Three months later, one of the most colorful fairs in history took place, using tents from as far away as Italy.

The fire turned out to be a needed pruning. The fair's bank book went precariously low with improvements, including sprinklers, that cost more than $1 million. But attendance soared higher each year in the 1970s.

Trouble wasn't over. Eighteen people were arrested for drug use in 1971, including two "major pushers." The security force was doubled and changed "from watching over tomatoes to watching over people."

Circus shows, so popular since the 1950s, weren't sophisticated enough for the new fairgoers, who wanted bigger and bigger stage acts.

Dale Robertson, John Davidson, Kay Starr and aerialist Karl Wallenda were among the first.

A marketing jingle taught people to sing: "You can do it at a trot, you can do it at a gallop, you can do it real slow . . . Do the Puyallup."

The 1980s: Mud wrestling

By the 1980s, the fair had hit the big time.

Big-name acts - The Judds, Willie Nelson, Kenny G, Bob Hope - headlined the grandstand show every night.

The grounds were valued at more than $8 million, and use of the fairgrounds in the off-season, which started with five events in 1972, had grown to events held half the year for a gross income of nearly $500,000.

Livestock became more exotic to include llamas, angora goats, pygmy goats and pot-bellied pigs.

Sophistication reached an all-time high in the 1980s when mud, so long the bane of the fair, was trucked back in so people could mud wrestle.

The Puyallup Fair grew to be one of the top-10 biggest in the country and remains the only "people-owned" fair - no government subsidies - to show such success.

(Sources: "Doin' The Puyallup, An Illustrated History of the Western Washington Fair Since 1900," text by Val Dumond, design by Rachael Costner, 1991, Western Washington Fair Association. Also The Seattle Times' library files.) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Book note

Val Dumond, author of "Doin' The Puyallup, An Illustrated History of the Western Washington Fair Since 1900," and designer Rachael Costner will autograph copies at the Puyallup Fair store in the Expo Hall on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the fair.

As a nonprofit organization, the Western Washington Fair Association can sell the $29.95 book only at the fair.

Dumond, a Tacoma writer who began researching the coffee-table book in 1975, said an expanded version may be published for the fair's upcoming centennial.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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