The Feast of Change

The Feast of Change
The Oregon Country Fair
Rain 14-3, Spring 1993
Story: Jeff Land
Black & White photos: Deborah Pickett
Color photos: Greg Bryant

"It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.”

Like the Cat in the Hat, the Oregon Country Fair reveals certain kinds of fun to be subversive, especially in bleak and mean-spirited times. Today, when the packaging and selling of entertainment is at its nadir, this great carnival retains remarkable cultural independence. It frolics about, growing and sowing its vision of liberation within the local and regional community. And now, due to nearly uncontrollable success, it has mushroomed into a source of funding for social justice and community revitalization.

On Saturday mid-afternoon at the Fair this past summer, Leslie Scott, the general manager, did the unthinkable. She shut the gates early on the summer’s biggest party. The Fair, on this second day of its 23rd year, bulged with almost 20,000 guests, at $10 a head. On a normal day, with only 10-15 thousand visitors, the dusty paths that circle in a maze through the dry marshland remain somewhat passable. The crowd size usually serves to slow everyone down to a comfortable walking pace. But now the place seemed completely full.

What does the sellout this summer really mean? Ask anyone from Eugene’s dominant ethnic group, neo-'60s hippies, and they will tell you, endlessly, of the Fair’s good old days, back when you could get stoned in public, when crafts were cheaper, more funky, when the delight and absurdity was spontaneous instead of rehearsed and scheduled. They complain that Community Village (where dedicated local activists reach out to the public) was once the respected political heart of the Fair, but is now treated like a needy poor cousin. Inevitably the people who kvetch the most are those active in the Fair the longest.

Still, the complaint that the Fair has in some way gone commercial or become less true to its original vision misses an important point; the event, for all its revelry, was always also a market and has, for just about every one of its 23 years, earned money, sometimes a great deal.

Since the start no single patron, foundation, or sponsor underwrote the festivities. The admission fee and the rent from the hundreds of vendors ensure that those most directly involved will financially support the event. The festive wonder of parades, jugglers, music, circuses and general gossamer frippery have always been propped and nurtured by the cool-headed rationale of the hippie vendor who counts on perhaps half a year’s income from those three summer days. Here, Adam Smith’s invisible hand holds a special wand. The many small businesses protect the Fair from seeking that most baleful thing, corporate sponsorship. Entrepreneurial zeal joins in some fortunate way with the dreams of the Woodstock nation: peace, love and understanding — as alive in Eugene as anywhere — open this space for good fun over a long summer weekend.

How else can we account for the enormous energy volunteers from the Pacific Northwest counterculture pour into their summer celebration year after year, decade after decade? Yearlong committees deal with a range of minute problems. Other people work what is essentially a second full-time job, without pay, for up to ten weeks every summer, a commitment which testifies to the devotion the Fair solicits from its family. Beginning in mid-June hundreds of carpenters, vendors, craftspersons, performers, and a motley crew of others, make the annual trek to the site on the outskirts of Eugene to prepare for the Fair, clearing brush, repairing booths, and re-establishing the patterns of consensual decision-making. By the time it opens in mid-July the site is home to over 3,000 residents.

Once the Fighting Swords of Karma marching band heralds the festivities, the Oregon Country Fair is reborn: a kaleidoscopic carnival that evades description. As the promotional material puts it, it becomes “a place where we can share ... the beautiful things we create with our hearts and hands.” For daytime visitors, it is one of the largest showcases of new vaudeville in the country: jugglers, trapeze artists, spoon performers, comics and innumerably various musical acts. Inside the loop, the polymorphous vibes — all those shapes, smells, sounds, colors, and tastes — are themselves worth the price of admission. The 250 craft and food booths display the equivalent of several shopping malls worth of toys, tasty treats, and useful items, all natural or hand made. The best of the booths have been constructed slowly and modified over time — marvels in the tradition of nomad architecture. These spaces are precious, often tended by the same folks and their children and kin for years. They now have more customers than they ever imagined possible. From Native American bark berry-picking-baskets to barbecues, from yurts to desserts, the Fair is a grand market event. For relaxation one can get massages, take solar heated showers, join a drumming circle, or sweat in a large sauna (which some claim is the event’s most profitable venture).

After the crowds leave (20,000 people!) the evening party begins, gently as the sun sets and building momentum around midnight. Several thousand happy campers turn on their lanterns, begin to unwind, share some food, and choose between the drumming, the dancing, the sauna, or hanging out with old friends. Nighttime policing — the “Sweep”, an old Fair cat-and-mouse game — also commences. Uninvited guests to Saturday night’s candlelight bacchanal have at times numbered over 5,000. Pity the poor security guards — and there are hundreds — who must patrol for “visitors” while missing out on the celebration. The warning is out that security will continue to increase.

In 1991 the Oregon Country Fair corporation, administrator of the event, made the final mortgage payment on the land. More than ever, the institution that sprang from the festival is growing and plans to use its resources to nurture other projects. “When you got lots of money, you got lots of friends” (especially if you know how to have lots of good fun.) As a nonprofit educational entity the Fair must disperse its surplus. Pressured to focus seriously on the future, working committees will come up with plans, especially for large-scale site improvements and an endowment fund, which will over the years sponsor groups and movements the Fair collectively endorses. This re-orientation towards greater community involvement has not been simple. From time immemorial the participants’ psychic energies are directed either toward next summer’s blast — the Poster, the music, the passes — or to those earlier, better parties.

The success of the Fair has brought with it a change in the way that certain things are done, although it is not easy to discern the dynamics of this transformation. In the first place, to put together a Fair history one needs to trust faulty memory and much hearsay. Some of the original folks who did the most to get things underway now reside in other regions, and those who have been around for years are not necessarily willing to say much, preserving in their way the event’s mystique. One of the oldest timers I spoke with struggled to find the nature of the changes but could only come up with: “It’s different, man, it is sooooo different”, as if his tone could explain it all (which of course, it did).

Long ago, it is said, permits for the Fair might not arrive until a few days before it was scheduled to happen. When the county government finally obliged (at times threatened with legal action if it didn’t), word would spread through networks of friends. In a day or two, the party in the woods and fields by the Long Tom river was on with no, or very few, large monetary donations. About ten years ago, after years of leasing its Veneta site, the Fair board, guided by the foresight and determination of Ron Chase, made the momentous decision to take out a mortgage and purchase the property outright for $250,000. Part of this was paid up front, with about 60% left to pay. This obviously meant a much larger commitment to long range planning and to financial accountability than some had previously imagined or desired. People in positions of responsibility would now need to stay a little straighter in order to make sure that books were kept in order and receipts would add up correctly. Lines of accountability would need to be drawn on paper, not in the imagination. It is said that almost the entire board quit after the bravado of making this fateful decision. The tumultuous situation led in the early eighties to the creation of the position of general manager, first voluntary and then in 1989 the OCF’s first paid staff position. (I’ve been told the $17,000 salary works out to between $2 and $4 an hour.)

From the perspective of the State, the Fair is a non-profit educational corporation with decision-making power held by its members: those with some affiliation with certain aspects of the event. This group meets in the autumn of each year in Eugene to select a ten-person board of directors who serve staggered terms of two years. The Board prepares general proposals for the larger body, while convening committees and overseeing the small staff of three and the huge team of volunteers. These volunteers, the muscle and lifeblood of the Fair, are divided into large crews: recycling, traffic, communications, bubbles. Heads of the different crews form the site committee, the main stewards of the event.

Within and without this basic structure are the “old guard” who have for years made sure their karma permeated the Fair. These are the elders who through wisdom and connections retain their traditional privileges. Some left when the decision to purchase the property rose the level of seriousness; others return annually to their funky booths or campsites, asking for little except a good time, and in turn not doing that much. With the income the Fair produces — almost a quarter of million dollars in 1992 alone — there may be conflicts as some see a chance to use their influence to direct future investment. Re-investment in the Fair could compete with visions held by some of the Fair’s current leadership, those now leaping at the chance to fund a wide variety of community projects. For the moment, there has been no debilitating problem. Patient and intelligent planning has gone into the generation of an endowment fund which will grant small awards to groups in the Northwest (Pacific Cascadia) that uphold the Fair’s carnivalesque vision. Other categories under consideration are ecological and agriculture projects. (Note: No applications will be accepted in the immediate future. Although there are plans to distribute some money in 1993, it will take several years for the interest-bearing principle to accrue to a significant amount).

Recall the other moral lesson of the Cat in Hat: pick up after yourselves if you have a big party. Here the Fair succeeds dramatically. It is an international showcase of recycling: one of the most resource-conscious events of its size in the country. After clean-up the sensitive marshland, possibly an ancient Native American ceremonial ground, gets to rest for most of the year, and the Fair may soon begin to rotate sites to give more time for recovery.

But without a Cat, who invokes this responsible behavior? Perhaps the true magic of the Fair lies in its ability to keep the answers to questions of responsible self-government open, while still taking care of business. The ad hoc parameters within which the board, the manager, the committees, the vendors, the local community, and the fair family operate, retain a spirit of openness and confidence.

How has such an anarchic organization managed to keep its bearings amidst constant change? First one might look towards its profitability, occurring almost in spite of itself. The yearly revenue allowed for what might politely be termed “creative bookkeeping” in years past, now happily no longer the practice. The enthusiasm of the volunteers complements the Fair’s business success. But most of all, the extraordinary need which the Fair fulfills draws out the best in creative energy and cooperative spirit, even, perhaps especially, in reactionary times.

The OCF now is at a cusp. Over two decades it has made lots of folks quite happy. The list of people to thank for this success would fill an article much longer than this one. This little gathering in the woods — a feast of time, of change and renewal — moves towards the millennium with its original flavor, and very few compromises with the straight, anti-festive world of normality. In its best moments it has kept the utopian sense of the 60’s alive without becoming mired in nostalgia and packaged emotions. Now able to sponsor groups and persons doing Fair-like work every day, the Oregon Country Fair is crystallizing into something new and potentially wondrous.

The Oregon Country Fair was not held in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the empty fairgrounds were open to visitors interested in watching the wildlife and exploring the adaptive architecture of the city. Below is the dragon entrance in 2020, which can be seen above under construction in the black and white photograph from1993.