Ye ol' Bonner County Fair
Photo By Bonnie Plaster
By Ben Silverman
As summer turns its face to a golden ripeness, millions of people in cities and towns across the country turn their thoughts to a tradition as old as any that American history has known: the county fair.
Bonner County is no exception. In 1927 the first fair was held at what is now War Memorial Field with 20 communities participating. Before technology gave us television for entertainment, residents and farmers from rural Bonner County looked forward to the fair -- showing off their prized livestock and produce, and visiting with neighbors and friends.
"A lot of folks still come to the fair, even if they don't have something to show," said former Fair Manager Lynnette Rembowski. "That's because it gives them a chance to see all of their buddies. It's been a real pleasure to be able to maintain this as an old-fashioned fair. It's been a part of me for my entire life."
Rembowski, who was the Fairgrounds manager for 10-years, holds a lifetime of memories and involvement both as an adult and a child.
"I'll never forget one of the early exhibits put together by the Idaho Fish and Game and the Forest Service," she said. "It was a full scale logging operation with a lookout tower."
Launched with little funding, the fair lacked amenities and exhibition space. "We didn't have the buildings we now have at the fairgrounds," she said. "The livestock was shown out on the grass. There were also more homemaker clubs and extension groups of women back then."
After its move to its present location on North Boyer in 1972, the fair grew to include a main exhibit building, a food service building, an indoor and outdoor arena, three horse barns, a sheep and swine barn, a poultry and rabbit barn and, new last year, a fish and wildlife building.
Slated this year for Aug. 23-26, the Bonner County Fair is one of few county fairs nationwide that still maintains its old-fashioned charm. Fair participants parade their pampered produce in the main exhibit hall, treating fairgoers' senses to colorful ripe produce, flowers and preserves standing proud with red and blue ribbons, a testament to the season's labor of love. An entire room is dedicated to photography, and numerous exhibit stands are filled with arts and crafts, quilts and more. Dozens of businesses and community groups exhibit, creating an interesting mix of content and people in rows of booths. Perhaps the biggest event is the Friday night livestock auction, where hundreds of business representatives attempt to outbid each other.
The fact that the fair doesn't include a carnival is in keeping with the Fair Board's philosophy, according to Fairgrounds Manager Sharon Bryant, who replaced Rembowski in January. "Every year the question of having a carnival comes up, but the Bonner County Fair Board wants to keep the old-fashioned setting of the fair," she said.
Bryant knows the strain of change from her experience as the past activities coordinator at the county fair in Winnemucca, Nev., where a carnival was added to keep the event going. "Although other county fairs across the country are bending to pressure and bringing in carnivals to increase attendance and income, the Bonner County Fair Board prefers to retain traditions and maintain the old country-fair atmosphere," she said.
Meantime, the fair's focus in education remains strong. A quote from the 1930 Extension Service annual report stated, "Since 1927 the fair has made rapid growth and is a credible institution with far-reaching influence. It is a free fair, strictly educational, without games of chance, races or other entertainment to detract from the educational exhibits and programs."
That statement holds true more than 70 years later. In cooperation with the county Extension Service, numerous 4-H clubs have enabled countless youth to gain experience and knowledge in fields as diverse as livestock, home economics, the arts and technology. The Bonner County 4-H club was initiated in 1925 and Rembowski joined the organization as a young girl in 1951.
"It's basically a 4-H fair," said Rembowski. "A lot of parents spend their vacation time there to be with their kids. 4-H brings families together."
Nancy Wright, 4-H program assistant, said some 525 4-H kids are enrolled in 30 clubs within the county. "The fair is the high point of 4-H," she said. "It's fun for the kids to come to the fair and show people what they've learned through the year."
Many would agree, however, that aside from the events and competitions, the fair is about fond memories -- a place where children experience live animals for the first time, where the smell of hot dogs and cotton candy weave together in the late summer heat, and where American country culture lives on.