Eugene Weekly : Oregon Country Fair 2010 : 7.8.2010


Oregon Country Fair 2010

Fair History, Family History A smattering of stories of the real people behind the magic

Music, Spoken Word, Juggling  . . . A doctor with a clown costume, plus a whole lot more

Fair Process Behind the scenes of the fairyland

Pedal Power The OCF greens up even more

Missing Kevin at the Fair Longtime Fair backer remembered

Fair Process
Behind the scenes of the fairyland
Story by Victoria Davila

This story was originally printed, in a different, longer form, the UO student-run Ethos Magazine ( this spring. When EW asked on Facebook what Eugeneans wanted to know about the Fair, many people asked for more history and behind-the-scenes info in each special issue. Victoria Davila’s piece happened to fit that need perfectly. Thanks to Ethos for sharing!

The Fair in winter. Photo by Sarabeth Oppliger
The 2009 Fair. Photo by Conner Jay

To walk into the 280 wooded acres of the Oregon Country Fair (OCF) is to enter a wonderland. Step off the free shuttle bus with an OCF ticket in hand, and dive into a land of artwork and good vibrations springing from blades of grass. Two large mythical dragons sit at the entrance, greeting crowds and also serving as benches and booths. People wander through a swirl of painted, bedazzled bodies swimming amid an endless stream of more than eighty food vendors, hundreds of craft booths and numerous stages at the OCF.

Behind the scenes of the storybook wonder is an intricate structure with strong foundations going back more than 40 years. Eugeneans contributed their time and talent to start the first Fair, created to support a Fern Ridge school, in 1969. That “Renaissance Fair” drew 2,000 people, cost $1 and made only a small profit. 

Today, roughly 20,000 volunteers work the event with a budget of about $1.5 million. Each day draws 18,000 visitors who pay more than $20 in admission. The Fair hasn’t lost sight of its philanthropic roots — last year it donated $55,000 to local arts, education and basic needs organizations.


Fair Evolution

“You’ve got thousands and thousands of people and potential for chaos, and it goes off as if it’s this well orchestrated ballet,” says Linda Shumate of PremRose Edibles, who vended at the Fair for the first time last year.

The Fair has “metamorphosized over the decades into a rare breed ­ a self-sustaining and lively arts festival that contributes to its community. The Oregon Country Fair became a place where aging hipsters, sacred tricksters, and new vaudevillians, plus their children and grandchildren, would gather for decades to celebrate counterculture community,” writes Eugene journalist Suzi Prozanski in her book Fruit of the Sixties: The Founding of the Oregon Country Fair.

The Fair is still known as a carefree gathering of hippies, where clothes are either fanciful or barely there. But beneath the surface lie the constantly spinning wheels of a well-oiled machine. A board of directors has its hands full overseeing all actions of the Fair. The board also sets policy and decides which local organizations will receive Fair-donated money. Committees make recommendations to the board, and the board votes on them in the fall.

Attendees and volunteers can donate during the Fair to the Jill Heiman Vision Fund. Money from the previous year has been awarded to the Relief Nursery, St. Vincent DePaul’s and Womenspace, among other organizations.

Along with the board, seven year-round employee organizers, countless volunteers and site caretakers work away, putting on more than just an event, but a social manifestation of the spirit of Eugene.


At First Glance

To see booth after booth of Northwestern crafts and food, none of it prepackaged or brand name, is a welcome sight for anyone used to the shiny boxed-shaped world.

“No Pepsi or potato chips here,” Norma Sax says about Fair food. Sax is an OCF Elder (someone who has worked at the Fair for 20 years or longer) and year-round employee of the Fair as an administrative assistant. The vendors adhere to environmental-based rules of composting all food, and the Fair is transitioning toward compostable utensils.

“Some people come for the fabulous entertainment, food, crafts and demonstrations of how the world could be. Others, including me, come to live in that world for a little while, to be reminded that it’s entirely possible,” Jain Elliott says. Elliott is a 60-year-old Elder of the OCF who has been attending the Fair for half her life.

The world Elliott speaks of is one where hand-built wooden structures are continuously renovated, maintained and added to the figure-eight shape that defines the Fair’s path. Some booths are new, while others have been there since the Fair started in 1969. Structures wrap and work their way into the nature that surrounds them. Minimal pruning of trees maintains the authenticity of the natural environment, and branches must be tied back rather than cut or harmed in any way.


Beneath the Surface

Daily maintenance and routine replacements are necessary due to winter flooding and weather damage, and that requires a caretaker to be on site year-round, along with a site manager who lives there a few days a week.

Steve Wisnovsky, site manager at the Fair for 16 years. is constantly observing the grounds’ yearly transformation. During the off-season, he watches wildflowers bloom and dominate the area of lush green grasses. Wisnovsky sees the vast difference between the usual wooded lands and the chaotic pseudo-city in July. The people trekking through wear the grass down to brown dust, but before the masses arrive, the Fair paths are beautifully lush.

During the weekend-long event, themed booths come together to create “villages” or “parks,” all of which must be cohesive and coordinated. Crew leaders and back-up managers assign volunteers to manage traffic direction, security, water and cleanup. Over the years, various crews and directors slowly grew with demands for a more organized structure. Like many collectives, they struggled with decision-making, authority and delegation, but also worked to stay true to foundations of equality and progress.

The identities of the Fair’s organizers and workers used to be a closely guarded secret. Some of the original founders and volunteers dealt with government surveillance of homes and businesses. At one point, according to Prozanski’s book, “coordinators routinely destroyed registration lists after each fair at the insistence of participants paranoid about government snoops.” Today, Elliott estimates, 20,000 people get passes to attend the Fair as workers. But there is still no central list. Even the event organizers can’t place a specific number on it.

Gaining a place with a crew isn’t an easy task. Normally, volunteers have to have a connection with someone already involved if they want to get started. But once the day visitors are gone, hard work is rewarded with nights of relaxation, music, and dance. 


The Magic of the Fair Family

When all the aspects unite, attendees describe the Fair as nothing less than magic.

This magic keeps workers and attendees coming back, often rising through the levels of involvement with the Fair production. Many of the Fair’s workers stay with it for their entire lives.

After decades of volunteering, Elliot became an Elder. With this status, she no longer has to work for her pass. Even so, she continues as the coordinator for the Little People day care booth in the Community Village, and remains active with Village meetings and work parties.

“It’s a family reunion every summer where we renew our commitment to live purposefully,” says Colleen Bauman of Dana’s Cheesecakes. As a long-term Fair Family member, she has some tips for newbies.

“Try something new. Go to a new stage,” Bauman says. “Have a conversation and get to know people behind the scenes working there. To me, that’s very much the beauty of the Fair. Get involved and be part of it.”