The Alaska State Fair in Palmer opens Today and continues through September 4th, Labor Day.
Gates open at noon Monday-Friday and 10 a.m. over the weekend. They close at 10 p.m. each night until the final day when the celebration comes to an end at 8 p.m. The Fairgrounds are located on the Glenn Highway just south of Palmer.
Except for a four-year period during World War II, Palmer has hosted an annual Fair since 1936. That first one featured crops raised in the fertile soil of the Matanuska Valley by pioneers new to Alaska. A year earlier, 200 families drew lots for tracts of land offered through the Matanuska Colony project. The colonists had been relocated from Depression-ravaged locations in the Midwest in a New Deal program intended to both improve their lives and develop the Valley. The area’s agricultural potential had long been recognized by government officials.
To celebrate their first real harvest, the colonists did as they had done in their former homes—by holding a Fair. A Fair Queen was elected, there was a Cute Baby contest, horse races, a rodeo, boxing and wrestling matches, baseball games and a dance participated in by all. There were also contests to determine the largest and best-looking vegetables and animals.
Eighty-one years later, nearly all those things remain on the program. Dramatic changes, though, are seen in the size of the vegetables and of the crowds who attend. The program, too, has been expanded to mirror changes in the environment. There is more of everything—entertainment, carnival games, rides, food, and events.
“Oh, it was so exciting! Everybody went,” exclaimed Eagle River resident Joe Anne Vanover, who attended that first Fair. She was six years old and vividly remembers those four days of celebration.
One event she remembered immediately was the wrestling matches held on the stage. She had never seen anything like them.
Another vivid memory was the painstaking preparation her mother undertook—and which included the daughter—in getting vegetables ready to enter.
“They had to be perfect,” she explained. “She entered small carrots, and they all had to be the exact same size. So did the peas. They were put in layers and had to be just so.” Their vegetables won prizes year after year. So did the jams and jellies—which had to be strained absolutely clear to suit her proud mom.
Another chore was also readily recalled. The horses had to be meticulously groomed. Vanover was assigned the job of polishing the hooves of the cows, calves, and horses to prepare them for judging. The family raised pigs and found that sows ready to give birth were popular Fair attractions. An announcement over the public address system was made when the newborns appeared, and crowds rushed to view the spectacle.
Also popular in later years was the Rat Race, she recalled. Continuing today, it features a tiny critter which is turned loose on a circular board. Prizes are awarded to patrons who place their bets on which numbered hole the “rat” ducks into. The rat is not actually of that species, but a gerbil. To avoid complaints from animal-rights groups, each game’s gerbil is one of several that work in shifts during the Fair and are well cared-for. The Rat Race is a productive fundraiser for its sponsor, the Palmer Elks Lodge, which uses the proceeds to benefit local needs.
“I don’t think I’ve missed more than just a few Fairs,” Vanover said. “Every year I think I won’t go, but then I end up being there to see what’s new.”
Vanover’s brother, Joe Lentz, is probably the Fair’s longest-running of the many food vendors, she said. His Husky Burger food concession is very popular.
Another long-running Fair concession, and one of its largest and best attended, is the series of rides operated by Golden Wheel Amusements. Based in Chugiak, they have been a part of the Fair for 50 years, although the Fair had offered rides for 17 years previously. Claire Morton, who had worked with carnivals since she was a young woman, arranged to bring an assortment of rides to the Palmer Fair in 1967. Golden Wheel has continued its arrangement as the Fair’s ride attraction ever since. Morton has since retired, but her daughter Jaqueline and husband Joe Leavitt and their children are now in charge. The Leavitts met in 1993 while working at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous in 1993. Their sons also are involved in the operation.
In addition to the Fair, Golden Wheel rides are popular attractions at the Bear Paw Festival, the Fur Rendezvous and other venues around Alaska.
When not engaged in the various events the equipment can be seen stored at the company’s headquarters alongside the Old Glenn Highway in Chugiak.
Many celebrities have visited the Fair in Palmer over the years. Senator John F. Kennedy attended during a 1960 stop in his successful campaign for president. Two days later, he told an audience in Michigan, “I saw in that new city, surrounded by the Matanuska Valley, which 25 years ago was a desolate wilderness, and which is today one of the richest farm areas in the United States.”
On the stage and in the exhibit halls, regular performances by both local and nationally-recognized musicians are featured during the Fair. In the past, such notables as Ted Nugent, Boyz2Men, the Beach Boys, Charlie Daniels Band, Los Lobos, Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Howie Mandell and REO Speedwagon have appeared on stage. The program for this year shows a wide array of artists in many different categories.
Many Chugiak-Eagle River residents regularly enter exhibits at the annual Fair, competing for ribbons in various categories. Fair pavilions hold displays in crafts, vegetables, and animals. There are also monster truck shows, demolition derbies, horse shows and rodeos, as well as exhibitions such as the popular lumberjack shows.
Alaska’s giant vegetables always gain a lot of attention. The first big cabbage contest was held in 1941. Max Sherrod won first prize with a cabbage weighing 23 pounds. That was puny compared to the Guinness world record entry by Scott Robb in 2012, which tipped the scales at 138.25 pounds. The largest Alaska pumpkin weighed 1,287 pounds but fell short of the world record of 2,600 pounds.
When Vanover attended the first Valley fair, she recalls that it was located next to the schoolhouse. It was moved to its present location on the Glenn Highway in 1967. That first Fair was attended by members of the first 200 families and a few residents from surrounding areas. In recent years hundreds of thousands go through the gates, its attendance in 2003 recorded as 312,419.
This year’s Fair closes at 8 p.m. Labor Day night. If you want to add to this year’s attendance figures, you will be able to enjoy one of Alaska’s finest attractions. Your memories may even last as long and be as enjoyable as those of Joe Anne Vanover.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.