Dana Merryday/The Creswell Chronicle
As you read this I will be camped out and ready for the opening of the 50th Oregon Country Fair. For the past 27 years, the second weekend in July has been indelibly marked on my calendar as an ”I know where I will be” notation.
I had heard of this gathering for years before I actually made it to Veneta, Ore. In the summer of 1992, I finally arrived there for what was to be a life-changing event. I showed up on-site a week ahead of that year’s fair with my tools and a willing attitude. I was taken in and earned my first camping pass via my construction abilities. I met some folks who asked me to stay on for another week and help take down stuff that would be affected by the winter floods. So my role as a ”deconstruction crew” member was established. I still earn my pass that way each year.
Unwittingly, I had become a part of the ”Fair Family.” This is a disparate group of volunteers, crafters, performers, and some who defy labeling, who come together once a year to produce a unique and magical, fun-filled weekend.
Having participated in or worked for many different festivals before becoming involved with the Oregon Country Fair (OCF), I knew basically how to navigate and fit in to this organization. What impressed me and makes the OCF truly unique is the amount of effort and work that goes into a single weekend. Having worked the ”Renaissance Pleasure Faire,” which played a role in the evolution of the Country Fair, I saw a similar level of preparation. But the Renaissance Faire would have a six- to eight-week run to show for all of that work.
The Oregon Country Fair, in fact, started as ”The Renaissance Faire,” in an abandoned peach orchard north of Eugene on Hawkins Lane.
Children’s House was a small cooperative school that had loose ties to the UO and was inspired by English educator A. S. Neill. Parents and teachers at the school were looking for a fundraising idea when Ron and Robin Ulrich suggested doing a renaissance-style event modeled on the California Renaissance Faire. This idea found quick acceptance in the group, especially the emphasis on old skills and handcrafted goods.
Pulling together, the group managed to stage the event on Nov 1-2, 1969 charging $1 admission for adults with children 12 and under admitted free. The weather was perfect and about 2,000 people showed up, making it a successful event logistically and financially.
Unfortunately for the school, ideological disagreements caused it to dissolve the following spring. However the seeds had been planted and they grew into both the Oregon Country Fair and the Eugene Saturday Market. There was something revolutionary about handcrafted goods to counter what was happening socially in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Making something by hand and dropping out of the usual work-for-hire to sell your own product found many takers in these times.
Some of the original organizers who had experienced the magic of the first Renaissance Faire picked up the reins and decided to try and hold another one. Continuing the philanthropic roots of the first, the $1 admission price was donated to Family Counseling Services of Lane County.
They decided to hold the second Oregon Renaissance Faire on Memorial Day weekend, May 29-31, 1970. The site was a pasture and woodlands off Crow Road west of Eugene.
Word spread and the event was basically a victim of its own success. The crowds descended and overwhelmed the organizers. Parking was a nightmare and traffic backed up for miles. Neighbors were blindsided and very upset. Many participants and guests stepped up to help sort things out. The magical chaos somehow ended well and many people came away inspired to carry the vision forward.
One couple, Bill and Cindy Wooten, in particular saw the promise in the idea of pursuing the development of this fledgling festival into a movement. Owners of the influential Odyssey Coffee House, they already were deeply involved in the counterculture of Eugene. Connie Epstein, one of the organizers of the Crow Road fair, asked the Wootens to serve as the main coordinators of the next planned fall fair and also suggested a possible site. She, at the time, lived on 400 acres near Veneta and it was available. The Long Tom River ran through and it was wooded and had many attractive features. And so the third fair happened there, as every other fair has to this day.
Space here doesn’t allow to describe all the twists and turns that comes from 50 years’ worth of interactions with eccentric, visionary people having to deal with each other and the outside world.
Briefly, some highlights include a threatened lawsuit from the California Renaissance Faire that forced the name change to Oregon Country Fair; a lawsuit against Lane County for targeted interference that led to a court victory and a monetary settlement which gave the fair its down payment to purchase the land it has used for 49 years; and incorporation into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that guided what had been a loose collective of anarchistic volunteers into a more orderly and productive philanthropic enterprise.
For more information on the fair and its history, I refer you to the following sources: two great books by Suzi Prozanski, ”The Fruit of the Sixties” and ”Brigadoon of the Sixties” which trace the founding of the fair to its present times; the Oregon Country Fair website (dot org) which also is an excellent guide full of tips on how to make your visit to the fair as enjoyable as possible; and lastly, there is a very nice exhibit on 50 years of OCF that will be at the Lane County Museum (on the Lane County Fairgrounds) through June 2020.
There are a number of Fair Family that have settled in Cottage Grove, putting a bit of the fair spin on this community. And you may notice it is a bit quieter in town this weekend as they take part in the annual phoenix-like gathering on land long cherished for such purposes from the Kalapuya onward. Happy 50th, Oregon Country Fair!
You can reach Dana at [email protected]