Fairgoers make a “laterally moving” crowd, according to Harold Phillips, director of the Douglas County Fair.
They wander from place to place, pausing as they do, taking in what’s around them before ambling off to the next enticement.
That’s why Phillips lays out the fair like he does: something shiny in every direction, and no less than 20 attractions at once. He said he wants to ensure the experience is absolutely worth the $9 cost of admission.
“Everywhere you turn, there should be something going on there,” he said during a tour of the grounds last week.
Cute animals. Face painting. Adult beverages. Wandering entertainers. Games of skill. Games of chance. Head rushes. Sugar rushes. Brain freeze.
If you can’t tell by now, it’s fair time again here in Douglas County, where the summer celebration has been held about a mile south of Roseburg each year since the mid-1940s. Like all rural county fairs, this one has its roots in ribbons and pie. Some, like the North Douglas County Fair, stick to that humble agrarian ethic and eschew modern influence. But the Douglas County Fair has evolved into something else entirely.
What started as a simple agricultural exhibition has become four full days of square dancing, commercial vendors in two massive exhibit centers, bingo, a “Fair’s Got Talent” competition and, every night, internationally known music acts. The traditional aspects have been kept around, but Phillips acknowledges they’re not what gets thousands through the gates.
“The number-one reason people attend this fair is entertainment,” Phillips said.
Between 11,000 and 16,000 people attend on a given weekday, and between 16,000 and 20,000 on a weekend day, depending who the headliner is. Up to 12,000 people can cram into the fair’s grassy amphitheater. The record for weekday attendance was set when Alice Cooper, the first so-called alternative act, appeared on the main stage.
Country singer Clay Walker remembers a crowd packed so tightly at his fair show in 2001, people were hanging in trees and on the sides of the stage, and “hot girls (were) everywhere.” Crowds at fancier venues sometimes arrive with expectations, he said.
“Fair crowds, they’re comfortable in their own skin. There’s no pretense. They know they’re going to have a good time, and you’re just a part of it,” he said. “Something about people walking around the same environment all day, it’s almost like they’re sitting in their own living room.”
“That’s the way a crowd is supposed to be. If I could bottle that and take it with me to 100 shows a year, I would.”
Walker headlines again this year, along with fellow country artist Dwight Yoakam, and rock acts 3 Doors Down and Whitesnake. Also booked are “comedy hypnotist” Alan Sands, “America’s Got Talent” winners, the Olate Dogs, and surreal Portland performance artists, The Tangled Threads. A slate of regional music acts will hold down the fair’s two secondary stages.
Douglas County’s fair department has around a $2 million operating budget and eight full-time, year-round employees. Departmental revenue comes from reserve concert seats — about 1,500 are sold each show — tickets at the gate, parking and a percentage from vendors. These include the Funtastic carnival and the food and beverage sellers.
During fair week, the complex becomes a city unto itself, complete with law enforcement, medical center and sanitation workers.
The fair is forgoing an annual theme this summer. In years past the fair has featured themes such as “Remember When” and “Journey through Time.” This year, the fair is incorporating the long-running slogan, “Fair Time is Fun Time,” which bedecks the entryway to the fairgrounds, as its permanent motto.
Back again but in new threads is Dougy, the sleepy-eyed pixie who’s been the fair’s mascot since 1967. Through the years he’s been a chef, photographer, skateboarder, musician and of course, a logger. This year, he’s sporting a bow tie and snappy boater.
Phillips says he starts working on the next fair before the current one has even started. But living and breathing the fair can be something of a headache, especially when everyone has packed up and moved on, and the only evidence it ever took place is a lingering, musky mix of garbage, animal waste and hydraulic fluid.
“It just has this smell. It’s indescribable. The smell of the fair lingers here for weeks,” Phillips said.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fair crowds, they’re comfortable in their own skin. There’s no pretense. They know they’re going to have a good time, and you’re just a part of it.