The Oregon Country Fair is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Better known to insiders simply as Fair, it’s a close cousin of Burning Man and widely considered the grandfather of all summer arts festivals. If you’ve never been, now is the time to go.
Forged out of the back-to-the-land movement, early Grateful Dead shows, and collectives like Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the Oregon Country Fair has become a multi-generational, cultural phenomenon filled with whimsy, absurd, and old-timey arts, dance, and music.
It’s a rabbit-hole for the free-spirited and an important part of U.S. summer festival history. And while many people—even some seasoned festivalgoers—may have never heard of it, every summer during the second week in July, 45,000 people descend on Veneta, Oregon—effectively raising the tiny town’s population by some 800 percent.
As a twenty-time fair attendee and performer, I consider the Oregon Country Fair to be an essential life experience. I have performed on the main stage with a belly dance troupe, filled an hour of spoken word stage time, and worked in the kitchen of a food booth—which is also where I met my husband. It’s a place to escape the confines of daily life, indulge in playful revelry and discovery, and expose yourself to a cultural kaleidoscope. It goes hand in hand with the fair’s unofficial motto: “Yes Yes Yes.”
Unique and hand-crafted
The Oregon Country Fair began in 1969 in Eugene, Oregon as a Renaissance fair. Its initial goal was to raise money for a local alternative school. Over the next several years, the festival kept expanding.
Cynthia Wooten, one of the fair’s original founders, describes the early vision as a response to the tumult of the time; a natural extension of the women’s rights movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the “conservation awakening.” It was, she says, a rejection of what they saw as a flawed American Dream. “Originally, Fair was a demonstration of community and self-reliance,” Wooten says, “a means by which people could come together to sell things of their own making.”
More important than that, she adds, was the formation of a like-minded community and open discourse. “Fair was a marketplace for art and music and products, but also an opportunity to talk about how to continue into an alternative future,” she says.
Today, the fair still holds closely to that goal, staying true to its commitment to supporting artists and crafters. Along the meandering, wooded paths of the fairgrounds you’ll find 300 craft vendors, 19 performance stages, 80 food booths, and thousands of ambient artists and art installations. And it’s become a family affair, with new generations continuing the tradition.
Chelsea Norris attended her first Oregon Country Fair at just three weeks old. Her parents sell their quilted landscape wall hangings, as well as beads and buttons made out of gemstones, at a craft booth. She’s quick to emphasize that the fair offers a singularly hands-on, personal retail experience in the 21st century.
“One of the things that makes the OCF unique is the restrictions they place on their craft vendors,” she says. “Not only do purchasers get the opportunity to buy directly from the artists, who are required to be present during open hours, but they can be assured that what they are buying is unique and hand-crafted.”
The intergenerational nature of the vendors and performers has encouraged the event to become widely accessible. It offers wheelchairs and accessible transportation, shaded rest areas, childcare, and a myriad of child-focused activities, from puppet shows to face painting.
Community is everything
The first thing you see when you approach the fair is an abundance of wildly costumed, smiling people, often traveling by stilts or unicycles. From parking signs to information kiosks and outhouses, everything is on theme as a hand-crafted work of art.
“The Fair experience is magical and unlike anything else,” says Denise Gilbertson, a longtime musical performer at the fair. “It is life intensified; delicious and satisfying.”
Inside is a sensory feast, with an ever-changing array of art installations, music, circus, dance, and spoken word performers from all over the world on small, intimate stages—one of which is in a nude sauna. There are roaming works of art (the giant puppets are a fair institution), parades, fire dancers, and craft demonstrations from the likes of metalsmiths and glass blowers. Among the many surprises in store for the 50th celebration is a special performance by Phil Lesh, the original bass player for the Grateful Dead, who will be closing the fair on Sunday night.
While it’s worth checking out the Peach Pit—the essential guide to the event—before entering to get a sense of all of the available attractions, the Oregon Country Fair isn’t a place to try and stick to a plan. Those who have attended the event for many years will tell you that the fair is best enjoyed by randomly wandering rather than trying to follow an itinerary. At its heart, the fair is a community-centered event.
Since the beginning, the fair has been dedicated to land stewardship and philanthropy. It’s a commitment that is manifested in nearly every aspect of the greater Lane County community. Through its foundation, the fair provides funding and support services to local artists, performance venues, cultural events, and nonprofits. It also plays an active role in environmental and arts education, most demonstrably through its annual youth summer camp, Culture Jam.
And, Wooten notes, unlike many festivals, it has become an important part of the local economy: “Countless businesses have been incubated at the fair—musicians, artists, food booths—contributing hundreds of millions to the region.”
By attending the fair, you are supporting an essential part of Oregon’s home-grown economy.
Decades of growth
Typical of any 50-year-old institution, the Oregon Country Fair is going through some generational growing pains. Recent years have seen some dramatic changes, including a move away from the folk and bluegrass music that for many years dominated the previously unamplified stages. Today, the musical roster better reflects the interests of the second- and third-generation fairgoers.
There has also been an expansion of the fairgrounds themselves. The most popular is the Dance Pavilion, a sun-shaded dance space that offers demonstrations and classes from experts in myriad forms of dance. It is “a venue that offers a variety of activities designed to foster connections between people in a safe, healthy, and empowering way,” according to Shawn Kahl, developer and coordinator of the pavilion. “We are trying to build a community based on core principles that are at the heart of the fair.”
And, like many festivals, the fair has had to face its own issues regarding diversity, inclusion, and appropriation. One of the most successful examples of this is the Caravan Stage, which in the ‘60s and ‘70s specialized in americanized belly dance, but in the new millennium has rebranded itself as a venue to showcase world dance. Longtime stage coordinator Elena Villa says that the transition was long overdue and a relief when it finally happened. “Now we are perhaps the most racially and ethnically diverse stage at Fair,” she says. “We are also age inclusive. This is really important to all of us.”
For Wooten, and so many other people, that fact that the fair has continued for so long is part of what makes it special. “The fair hasn’t gotten old, it’s not a hippie theme park,” she says. “Over the years, younger people have grown with the fair, so there are vibrant, wonderful people of all ages doing great things.”
If you go
The Oregon Country Fair runs from July 12 to 14 in Veneta, Oregon (13 miles west of Eugene). Purchase your tickets in advance by phone (800) 992-8499 or at TicketsWest.com. All tickets must be purchased in advance; there are no on-site ticket sales.