The Deschutes County Fair and Rodeo, which opened for the 99th year Wednesday, continues to attract the largest attendance of any county fair in Oregon.
The five-day fair has averaged 250,000 visitors in recent years, far more than neighboring counties and just shy of the Oregon State Fair in Salem, which drew 264,945 last year.
Dan Despotopulos, director of the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, credits the high turnout to factors both in and out of the fair’s control.
The booming population of Deschutes County is an obvious contributor to high attendance, he said. But also, fair employees pride themselves on their hard work and keeping the grounds pristine and welcoming to visitors.
“We have phenomenal facilities,” Despotopulos said. “Most places don’t have barns like we do.”
Another key to the fair’s success is keeping attractions affordable, Despotopulos said.
Fair food, carnival games and rides cost money, but the concerts and rodeos are free once you get in — general admission is $12.
A free bus service with routes from Bend, Redmond and Sisters is also offered each day of the fair.
“You could take the free bus ride to a free concert and free rodeo,” Despotopulos said. “There is a lot of stuff to see and do that doesn’t really cost any money.”
Attendance at the fair dipped last year to 245,000, mostly due to the extreme heat and heavy smoke from wildfires that plagued the county at the time, Despotopulos said.
This year, Despotopulos expects a rebound in attendance, with slightly cooler temperatures — highs forecast for the mid 70s and low 80s — and relatively clear skies.
An average annual attendance of 250,000 is more than double the amount of visitors at the next most popular county fair in Oregon: Clackamas County Fair drew 114,120 in 2017. The third-highest attendance last year was 113,825 at the Lane County Fair, followed by 112,075 at the Washington County Fair.
In Deschutes County, fair organizers are helping keep attendance high by making the experience more accessible to the public.
A new feature is a smartphone application that visitors can download to view maps of the fairgrounds, check the schedule of events and search for vendors.
Fair organizers have focused on adding modern elements, such as the smartphone app, while maintaining traditional attractions like the 4-H and Future Farmers of America competitions, Despotopulos said.
“We are constantly trying to think of things that make it better as we still keep all the traditional things, too,” Despotopulos said.
As the fair approaches its centennial year in 2019, staffers are planning to create a historic display next year that will use donated items from past fairgoers.
The fair is interested in borrowing pieces of fair memorabilia such as old guides, buttons, ribbons and photographs. Those who have items to contribute can take them or send them to the fairgrounds at 3800 SW Airport Way in Redmond. Items will be returned after the fair next year.
Viveca Hanson, a fairground employee overseeing the centennial project, said the fair is especially interested in memorabilia from the early years of the fair in the 1920s and 1930s and items from the Redmond Potato Show, which started in 1906 and merged into the fair in 1920.
“I would love to see if anyone has any more historical items from the Potato Show,” Hanson said. “That is a unicorn to find.”
The fair hasn’t received any items yet, but staffers have already found some interesting pieces left in filing cabinets.
Hanson came across old ledgers from 1934 to 1946 that showed people buying and selling stock in the fair. Staff also found an old dress from a former fair queen.
In addition, the fairgrounds have some historic buttons and guides, but not a full collection.
Hanson hopes to add items over the next year, and have an extensive display to showcase. She is relying on the public to help add to the collection.
“Really, anything would be amazing, especially from the older years,” Hanson said. “I would love to create a catalog of these items.”
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