Friday marked the opening day of the Central Washington State Fair, an event that has become, with only a few exceptions, an early autumn tradition in Yakima for the past 127 years.
The first opening day of the fair was one of pomp and ceremony, with parades, speeches and horse races.
For what was then North Yakima, the Washington State Agricultural Fair was a triumph for the city and the culmination of years trying to get a state institution in the community.
After losing the capital, North Yakima’s city officials were determined that the city would be home to some state institution, but they lost out on the state hospital, veterans home, prison and other entities. It also lost out on being home to what is now Washington State University.
But Yakima finally got something in 1892, when the Legislature voted to create a state fair in North Yakima. However, the fair couldn’t start that year because lawmakers didn’t provide funding, so a group of businessmen threw together an event at a downtown building and called it a fair.
The following year, lawmakers came up with $10,000 — $292,108 in today’s currency — to pay for the fair. But that wasn’t going to be quite enough.
Through 1893, people in Yakima raised a matching $10,000 and purchased 120 acres and deeded it over to the state in accordance with state law for a fairground. Yakima residents then started clearing and grading the land, building a racetrack with a 2,000-seat grandstand, 100 horse stalls and a three-story judges stand.
It’s estimated that the people of Yakima contributed $4,000 — $116,843 when adjusted for inflation — in cash, material and labor to finish the fairgrounds in time for the Sept. 24, 1894, opening day.
The Yakima Morning Herald described opening day as “one of the most climatically glorious days ever seen and enjoyed in Yakima.” It was a cloudless, warm sunny day. Streets were draped with flags and bunting for the event, which started with a parade.
The parade began at 10 a.m. at Mason’s Opera House, on East Yakima Avenue near First Street, and proceeded to the fairgrounds. Leading the parade was a band from the Knights of Pythias lodge in Dayton, followed by Yakima Pythians, National Guard cavalry and troops, including Yakima-based Company E of the First Washington Infantry, visiting dignitaries and fair officials, mounted Yakama Nation citizens in full regalia and a line of carriages with residents.
Gov. John H. McGraw was supposed to preside over the fair’s opening, but he could not make it. Instead, U.S. Rep. James Hamilton Lewis filled in, with the Herald reporting that he gave “one of his usual brainy, interesting speeches.”
“You open today, for the first time, what is to be in the future your annual state agricultural fair,” Lewis said in his speech, which the Herald transcribed in its entirety. “How welcome is the event. How animating the scene. The time of bringing each of his best products of the earth to display as the evidence of his genius or certificate of the worth of his soil has ever been recognized as one of the gala days in the feasts of the civilized world.”
He continued, tracing the history of agriculture back to the patriarchs of the Bible, lamented over a depreciation in the value of farming in other parts of the country and how irrigation helped the Yakima Valley be productive, among other topics.
At the fair, growers from Yakima, Kittitas and Walla Walla counties had the largest displays of produce. Other exhibits included a one-ton block of coal from Renton’s coal fields, along with a presentation from the state agricultural college on the eradication of pests.
There were also four horse races that day, with more than 100 horses running on the milelong track. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the track was the finest in the Northwest, and “the finest gathering of fast horses ever seen north of San Francisco.”
Despite criticism by the State Fair Commission on the paucity of cattle and livestock on display, the five-day event was deemed a success.
The fair continued, with interruptions in 1897 due to a lack of funds; hoof-and-mouth disease in 1924; the fairgrounds being converted to a truck factory and military pilot training center from 1942 to 1945; and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
In the 1950s, the state discontinued an official state fair and put the grounds up for sale. With money borrowed from the fair board, Yakima County purchased the grounds and granted the fair a long-term lease that is set to expire in 2035.