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Puyallup Fair Days
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Puyallup Fair Days
  Washington State Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton

Puyallup, meaning generous or friendly people, is the largest city in eastern Pierce county. Although it's established in agriculture (some residents boast the area produces more bulbs than Holland), it's not the tulips that attract the visitors. Puyallup's fall fair brings in over a million and a half people each year.

Operated by Western Washington Fairgrounds, a private, nonprofit corporation, the fair receives no government subsidy and pays city and state taxes. Annual payroll is over three million and that's not including the five thousand people employed by the concessionaires and exhibitors.

The fair, now covering over 130 acres, had a modest beginning. In June of 1900, the local business community, farmers and residents joined together to discuss the idea of holding a fair in the Puyallup Valley area. The group accepted the idea immediately and that same year, exhibited produce, ladies work and livestock in a vacant lot (Pioneer Park) in town. The following year the fair moved to ten acres with room for horse racing.

By 1913, five more acres, fiddler contests, log rolling and high wire acts were added. Nineteen hundred fourteen brought a new grandstand and 1915 the famous Fisher scone. (In 1993, sales of scones, dripping with 10,100 pounds of butter and 20,150 pounds of raspberry jam, reached a whopping 746,368.)

After WW1 the fair became even more prosperous. By the 1930's rides were much more advanced, they then built a dance hall, hobby hall and an art gallery. Attendance reached 400,000. Nineteen sixty-nine featured popular attractions such as the Osmond Family Singers and Frank Sinatra Jr. and replaced bingo and lotteries. By 1975 the fair was the tenth largest fair in North America. Today, it is the sixth largest. Nineteen ninety-one attendance reached 1,414,487. In 1992, 61 percent of the fairgoers were from outside the county.

With such success, it's no surprise that a Spring Fair has been added. Outside exhibitors rent the grounds the rest of the year.

I toured the fair grounds on an empty day. Dozens of maintenance workers were polishing, raking, painting and preparing for upcoming events. One fellow was scrubbing down a giant blowup cow, others positioned rows of food kiosks among false front blacksmith shops, museums, and hobby halls. Flowers were sprouting in the planters. A giant dipper loomed in the background behind livestock barns and arenas. The place tingled with activity. Imagine what it's like during the fair!

puyallup_antique.jpg Back in town, I checked out the antique stores. Antiques, just like old homes and other examples of yesterday, are treasured more than ever in today's futuristic world and Puyallup has a good number to peruse. I found a fine collection of linens and lace, Coca-Cola memorabilia, porcelain, and post cards among the regular merchandise one usually finds in antique shops. The prices weren't outrageous either.

The town was established long before the antique shops became popular, however. Shopkeepers selling baked goods, computer wares and barber shops are just as busy. This mixture of practical and fanciful gave me a chance to mingle with the villagers in their day to day affairs. I could feel the familiarity and friendliness between the merchants and the consumers, a closeness often missing in larger cities.

Many older buildings in Puyallup had to be demolished because of earthquakes or decay (the cost of reconstruction can be a heavy burden to small towns); however, one building missed the wrecking ball. Meeker's Mansion, once owned by the man who platted Puyallup and the town's first mayor. Its grand presence is prominent among the more modern homes. Not too many homes today have stained glass windows, peaked roofs, three floors and six coal-burning fireplaces.

meekers_mansion.jpg In the past, people were more likely to spend time on details. Ironically, today's historical societies take as much time or more to uncover these often buried details. For example, in an ongoing restoration program, professional restorers are patiently sanding the ceilings in the mansions. Their careful labor is exposing beautiful scrolled artwork beneath the layers and layers of paint.

Interestingly, in one room all the moldings and doors are oak; in another room, all woodwork is walnut. Each room in the mansion is distinct. Of the furniture, only the bedroom suite and a piano belonged to the original owners. Period pieces decorate the rest of the rooms.

According to Andy Anderson, the director of Meeker Mansion, building the house was Meeker's wife's idea. The Queen of England inspired Eliza Jane Meeker on a visit to London. (The gown she wore on that eventful day is on display.) Perhaps she thought she deserved more lavish surroundings than the log cabin she'd lived in for thirty years. Besides, before the "hop crisis," her husband Ezra was "the Hop King of the World." He could well afford the luxurious dwelling.

Ezra Meeker, who came out west via the Oregon Trail with his family in 1852, was a remarkable fellow even without his mansion. In fact, he left the mansion soon after his wife died. Believing the Oregon Trail needed markers and monuments, he spent the last twenty years of his life trying to achieve that end. Twice he retraced his steps, once (at age 76) in 1906 and again in 1910. On subsequent trips, he flew over the route, drove the trail in a Pathfinder, and rode the route by train. Meeker became the only man credited with traveling the Oregon Trail by ox team, automobile, railway and airplane. Herbert Hoover proclaimed the trail a National Historical Highway in 1931.

The Puyallup Farmer's Market, an aromatic and energetic event, takes place at Pioneer Park across from the Chamber's office. Dates are May 1 through September 1.

The outdoor amphitheater presents, for the past several years, Jesus of Nazareth, a 2 1/2 hour drama depicting the last 3 1/2 years of the life of Christ. Performances are held on Fridays and Saturdays during July and August. Approximately forty state churches are involved and there's a cast and crew of 800 people. Live horses, camels, sheep and doves are part of the performers. The set is 250 feet long and a pond represents the River Jordan. I'll have to schedule my next jaunt to Puyallup accordingly, because it sounds like a one-of-a-kind performance.

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