The Deschutes County Fair and Rodeo always reminds Sharon Joanis of her youth.

As a teenager, Joanis was a rodeo princess at the 1957 fair. She remembers wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and riding her beloved horse, Suzy, during the rodeo.

Sometimes the wind would knock her brown cowboy hat off her head. But she didn’t mind.

“The good thing about it was I met a lot of nice cowboys that would bring my hat back to me,” Joanis recalled. “And I got some dates that way.”

Joanis, 78, of Bend, recently loaned the hat she wore as rodeo princess to a historic display being set up at the fairgrounds to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Deschutes County Fair and Rodeo. The hat is hanging with other vintage fair memorabilia, such as old guides, buttons, ribbons and photographs. Other highlights include vintage horse saddles, a rodeo clown outfit and a ribbon from 1921, the oldest item in the collection.

For longtime residents of Central Oregon, the fair has always been a celebration of rural living and a reminder of a time when the region was mostly farms and mills. From livestock auctions to pie-eating contests and carnival food, the fair is a staple in the county.

Tara Marsh, a fairground employee overseeing the centennial display, which runs July 31 to Aug. 4, said she has been amazed at all the historic pieces people are bringing to the fairgrounds.

“It really has been a work of love,” Marsh said. “A lot of people who have brought in these historical artifacts, they have such passion and love for the county fair.”

Other items in the centennial display are from the Redmond Potato Show, which began in 1906 and merged into the fair in 1920.

Articles in The Bulletin from 1920 describe the first fair and rodeo as a success with an abundance of agricultural displays filling an exhibit hall.

“As a whole the fair was far better than any other ever held in Central Oregon,” reads an account in The Bulletin, “and the board of directors are already at work on plans for a still larger show next year.”

In 1996, voters approved a $25.3 million bond measure to build the Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center, east of U.S. Highway 97 and south of the Redmond Airport.

The first fair and rodeo at the new complex was held in 1999. Before then, the fair and rodeo was on a 33-acre property, where the Redmond Fred Meyer is today.

Ross Rogers, the fair marketing coordinator who has worked at the fairgrounds for 25 years, said he remembers the excitement surrounding the first fair in the new venue off Airport Way.

The 1999 fair drew large crowds, especially to see country music star Kenny Chesney and country and Southern rock band Alabama.

“The first year was huge,” Rogers said. “Everybody wanted to see the fairgrounds.”

Rogers said the fair has seen attendance grow about 6% each year since 1999.

In recent years, the five-day fair has averaged 250,000 visitors, far more than neighboring counties and just below the Oregon State Fair in Salem, which drew 264,945 in 2017.

Rogers credits the high attendance numbers to how affordable the fair is compared to others across the region. It helps that parking is free, bus services to the fair are free and concerts and the rodeo are free with the price of admission, Rogers said.

“I attribute that to the free programs that we have,” he said. “There is just so much to give back to the fairgoer.”

Joanis, a retired dental assistant, feels a deep connection to the fair. It was the highlight of her childhood summers, when she would ride Suzy at the fair.

Through the years, attending the fair became an annual tradition for Joanis and her family. She would bring her daughters so they could show off their own livestock. She would catch up with old friends and meet people who were interesting to talk to. She would wander the fairgrounds, and it was easy to remember the summer she was the rodeo princess and the cowboys who fetched her hat when the wind took it.

“It’s getting back to your roots,” she said. “It’s just a thing that you always did.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com

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