Organizers reflect on the Othello Fair’s history
For the Basin Business Journal | August 26, 2020 1:00 AM
There’s one thing Dave Sperl really likes about the Othello Fair.
“I know so many people in this town, and I know a lot of these young people. My wife taught school for 26 years,” said the longtime member of the Othello Fair Board.
“And it just feels good to see those young people come to the fair.”
“I work the back gate on Tuesday night, before the fair opens, and I see every little kid come in with their sheep in the back of a pickup, their eyes this big and a smile on their face,” Sperl said.
He added that he liked how people come to the fair to eat, walk around and see friends they might not have seen since last year’s fair.
Sperl said part of his job is to go around the fairgrounds in the two weeks before the fair, make sure all the electricity switches and outlets work, and kill any wasps’ nests inside of power boxes on light poles.
But mostly, Sperl said, he likes seeing the joy that being at the fair brings so many people.
“That’s what I love to see, I just see people happy out there,” he said.
Of course, there won’t be an Othello Fair — formerly the Adams County Fair — this year. Like nearly every county fair across the state, it has been canceled due to the persisting COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Sperl said fair organizers were hoping against hope earlier this summer that they would be able to stage the fair in mid-September.
“We have waited and waited, hoping, hoping, hoping that we could maybe still have a fair, but about the middle of July, we knew it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “There have been so many cancellations. It’s very disappointing.”
It’ll be the first time that anyone can remember there not being a fair of some kind at the Adams County Fairgrounds.
There have been fairs of some kind at the site on South Reynolds Road near the intersection of West Bench Road for at least 60 years, according to Sandy Dodge, whose family donated the land that eventually became the Adams County Fairgrounds.
“It’s kind of complicated,” Dodge said one morning while sitting at a table in the Othello Senior Center. “My grandmother (Bess Hampton) and Mrs. Harvey Bailey started a little fair, it was just a dinky little thing where people could get out and have picnic baskets and bring their wares and whatnot.”
Then her grandfather, A.O. Hampton, decided that the fair needed a better location. After her grandmother died in 1958, Dodge said, her grandfather donated the current fair site to one of the granges in Othello — there once were several and she’s not been able to determine which one.
“The grange wanted a place to meet instead of where they were meeting, so that’s how they got involved,” she said.
The land came to host what was called the West County Fair. At first, the big buildings didn’t have any roofs and were all covered in tarps, while smaller tents dotted the fairgrounds, Dodge said. Over time, the rodeo grounds moved and the buildings and the infrastructure became more permanent; cloth became wood and wood became concrete, in large part because the family, especially her parents Bud and Naomi Hampton, devoted so much time to the fair and the fairgrounds, Dodge added.
“When my grandmother passed, Dad got everyone involved in making our fairgrounds better, “ she said. “As a family, we would have a workday and go out there. … The ladies would set up a barbecue and have lunch for everybody.”
As the West County Fair grew, something called the East County Fair in Ritzville did as well. Both billed themselves as the Adams County Fair — a situation Dodge said grew untenable in Olympia, which insisted it wanted one county fair, and only one county fair, per county.
“The state said, ‘We can’t keep funding two little fairs.’ One county, one fair for that county. Since the population and the growth was in Othello, we would be the fair,” she said.
The East County Fair became the Wheat Land Community Fair, which is still going strong in Ritzville but like everywhere else, had to cancel its public fair this year.
Dodge said her favorite memories of the fair are the big parade the city would hold to inaugurate the fair, the state rodeo queen pageants the fairgrounds would host and the little “jail” that non-fairgoers would be “detained” in.
“There was a pickup or a trailer with a little ‘jail’ during fair week, and they would go and down Main Street, and if they saw someone they knew, and everybody seemed to know everybody back then, they would ‘arrest’ them because they were not at the fair,” she said.
And in that “jail” they would stay, until a friend or family member “bailed them out” by buying them a ticket to the fair, she said.
While it formally became the Adams County Fair sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Dodge said, a dispute over the last few years with Adams County led to the fair declaring its independence, finally securing legal recognition from the state as the Othello Fair.
And after all these years, the fair is something Dodge still feels belongs to her and her family, a kind of patrimony as well as a gift to the community.
“I love this fair. Period. It’s kind of like I inherited it, it’s part of our family, it’s part of our family history,” she said. “Family’s still involved, we’re still involved, and probably we’ll still be out there supporting it until we’re under the sod.”
Like Sperl, Dodge said it’s all about bringing people together.
“That’s why I love the fair, because of what we can do to make people happy. What we can do to help them get together and have a good time. And that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.