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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 7.9.2009

Oregon Country Fair 1969-2009

Writing the Fairstory How Fruit of the Sixties came to fruition

March to a New Beat Honoring tradition and diversity on the Main Stage

Beatlemania Hits the Fair 40th anniversary celebration includes full-length White Album

Upgrade Status: Green The Fair’s enviromental focus stays true

Living in Community New executive takes the reins

A Playground for All Family friendly opportunities at the OCF

 

Writing the Fairstory

How Fruit of the Sixties came to fruition

by Suzi Prozanski

EDITOR’S NOTE: Suzi Prozanski’s history of the Fair, Fruit of the Sixties, was a long time in process. Prozanski’s meticulous research fed her desire to get the story right, and after hours of notes in the newspaper stacks, reading a variety of other sources and conducting hundreds of interviews (combined with a Fair history project that netted 40 oral history interviews at the 2004 Fair), Prozanski wrote and edited for years to get the history right. We asked her to write an essay about the experience of dealing with so much information. Fruit of the Sixties is available at the Fair’s Spoken Word Store, across the path from the Rabbit Hole stage and, after the Fair ends, will be for sale on Prozanski’s website, www.suzipro.com 

The Coop Fruit booth at Community Village, 1977. Photo Sandra Bauer
Kesey on Main Stage in 1974. Photo Shandra G. Officer.
Toby Alves tends her first Faire booth in 1974, when she sold roasted nuts. Photo Shandra G. Officer.
Bill and Cindy Wooten in the early 1970s. Photo Sandra Bauer. 

I first got turned on to the idea of writing a history of the Oregon Country Fair while listening to longtime Fair participant Wally Slocum tell about challenges Fair organizers faced in the early days, especially with biker clubs such as the Free Souls. We were visiting in Main Camp before the 2003 Fair. “Those stories belong in a book!” I told Wally — to which he replied, “Several people have tried writing a book on Fair history, but no one has done it.” 

I next read Hal Hartzell’s book, Birth of a Cooperative, about the founding of the Hoedads, a forest workers’ cooperative. Hal’s book noted that the Hoedads became the original Security Crew at the Fair in 1973. This further piqued my interest and inspired me to pursue the project. I contacted Hal for advice, and our meeting evolved into my first interview on Fair history. 

Because I had recently quit my job as a copy editor at the Register-Guard, I had time to pursue the project. But the idea of compiling Fair history felt daunting, even with my two decades of experience in daily journalism. I didn’t move to Oregon until 1984, so I’d be writing about events I had only heard about. Fair documents from the first 10 years proved elusive. In addition, the Fair was co-created by thousands of volunteers over the last four decades. How could their collective experience be documented, much less described?

Nevertheless, I plunged ahead with the goal of telling the Fair’s history in the words of those who were there. I started by interviewing friends who had been going to the Fair for decades: Wally Slocum, Gil Harrison, Cynthia Wooten, Hal Hartzell and Dick Stewart. They shared their stories and connected me to other friends who also went back a long way in the Fair. Over the years, my interview list would continue to grow to more than 400.

Random coincidences helped me locate people from the earliest Fairs. Once, a conversation at a party led me to a key organizer of the first Fair. Another time, pottery artist Gil Harrison by chance met a friend’s son at an art show in Utah. The young man had been a student at Children’s House, which sponsored the first Fair in 1969. Through him, I met others involved in Children’s House and the first Fair.

At the 2004 Fair, Hal Hartzell led a contingent from the History Crew that gathered 40 interviews for the project. Over six years, I interviewed more than 300 fascinating Fair folks. Many of them remembered how their piece of the Fair came together but knew little about the rest of the event. To most, the Fair seemed to “magically” happen from a huge collective effort. But the more people I interviewed, the more it became clear that “Fair magic” is grounded in practical efforts.

As the oral histories unfolded, I often heard the same story told from different points of view. Usually the versions agreed; sometimes they didn’t. Nearly everyone interviewed shared a story about meeting noted Oregon author Ken Kesey, a longtime Fair participant. But placing the stories in time became the biggest puzzle. Hardly anybody knew when anything happened. I started reading books about the 1960s and 1970s and dove into newspaper archives, hoping to put the stories in better context.

The interviews revealed that Fair

participants intertwined with the community in numerous ways. Many Fair folks had a tendency to act on their high ideals in the “real world.” A pattern emerged of interconnectedness outside as well as inside the Fair. Long hours of perusing microfilm archives at the UO’s Knight Library confirmed that impression. Contemporary articles in the Eugene Register-Guard as well as in the counterculture weeklies, the Augur and the Willamette Valley Observer (predecessors to the Weekly), documented that Fair participants helped create key organizations in the region in the 1970s, including the Hoedads, Springfield Creamery, White Bird Clinic, BRING Recycling, the Saturday Market and others. Stories about those organizations would become chapters in Fruit of the Sixties, helping place the Fair in the context of the times.

Other highlights of my quest involved interviews with Fair entertainers at the forefront of the New Vaudeville movement in the 1970s. Reverend Chumleigh, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Tom Noddy and other entertainers — all natural storytellers — related hilarious escapades. Their delightful stories helped fill in details about the Fair’s entertainment history.

In 2006, I started publishing stories about the early Fairs in the Oregon Country Fair newsletter. Those articles prompted feedback from folks who attended those Fairs. Many of those articles later turned into chapters of Fruit of the Sixties.

Last fall, I decided to see if I could pull together enough stories for a book to honor the Fair’s upcoming 40th anniversary. By then, I had amassed a significant amount of information covering all four decades of the Fair, although a hundred more names remained on my interview list. I had originally planned to write one book covering all 40 years of Fair history. But as I tackled the work, it became apparent that this material could easily fill more than one volume.

After completing almost 40 chapters covering most of the 1970s, the year 1980 loomed as a logical ending point. That was the year the Fair officially became a 501(c)(3) organization — a full-fledged nonprofit. My decision meant many stories had to wait for another time: the birth of Energy Park and New Old Time Chautauqua in 1981, the Fair’s land purchase in 1982, numerous booth histories and much more. Almost 200 interviews have yet to be tapped, and my research continues. A sequel to Fruit of the Sixties is in the works.