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A place to see and be seen

In 1922, the Jackson County Fairgrounds moved to a new location where the Gateway retail area now sits in south Medford. The location was popular, credited as a place to be seen and drawing in top race car drivers and machines to a 1.1-mile track.

Today, the fairgrounds are located in Central Point, and are known as the Expo, which features a year-long series of events, including the annual county fair in July. Attendance at the fair and other events have made the Expo a self-supporting county operation that plans to continue its mission into the future.

The next decade will be spent answering the questions, “What do our citizens and our region need from us?” said Expo Manager Helen Funk. That’s consistent with the Expo’s mission to provide a fiscally sound cultural, recreational, agricultural, commercial and educational opportunity for the citizens of Jackson County and the region.

There are no plans for any new capital projects on the grounds, said Funk. Those could come if partners are involved. The adjacent, county-run RV park is an example of such a partnership.

“When you run a 245-acre campus, buildings, barns and lights, without a major million-dollar gift, you are not going to be building a lot of buildings,” said Funk.

Capital renovations will take place, among them replacing the roof on the Southern Oregon Event Center, said Funk. But she will need to secure funds for that. In addition, the Padgham Arena will be refurbished and renamed.

Programming and events will largely be determined by public demand and by those who would rent the facility. A small fair staff is hard-pressed to pull together events, although they do organize the fair and have run concerts by country band Old Dominion and country artist Josh Turner in recent years. Concerts by Macklemore and Toby Keith were promoted at the Expo by others.

This January’s Bacon and Barrels event, a first-time production, also was organized by fair staff and will be repeated next year.

“We’d love to do more concerts,” said Funk. Return of a festival such as the four-day County Crossings events that ran in 2017 and 2018 could happen if a promoter came along.

“An unintended consequence of County Crossings is we got to show off what our venue could do for country events,” said Funk. That’s brought more interest from concert organizers, she said.

“We are better at being an event host that rents out the Expo,” said Funk. “We want to rent so others can grow their businesses, try their own event growing.”

“The Expo hosted over 300 events last year and is on track to do the same this year,” said Rob Holmbeck, who heads community development. Events range from larger extravaganzas such as the fair, a rodeo and concerts to car and RV sales, trade shows and smaller events such as dog agility trials, spa sales and stock shows.

“We are always looking for new and exciting things to bring into the event centers. We are looking at adding some more music events, both inside and outside,” said Holmbeck. A monster truck competition is already held, and motocross events would be a possible addition, he said.

Excitement was part of the menu at the former south Medford location.

“The 1920s before the Great Depression were the fair’s heydays — and the place to be seen by the well-dressed during the Roaring ’20s,” Ashland historian Dennis Powers wrote in an online article on the fair’s history and development.

Jackson County and the city of Medford in 1922 purchased the site, which also contained the Newell Barber Airfield, planning to move the fair from its previous location south of Oakdale.

A levy in 1921 for an improved fairgrounds carried by 361 votes, with 1,552 voting yes and 1,196 voting no, research by historian Bill Miller shows. While apparently popular with the public, the new fairgrounds never had a successful financial year, Miller’s research found.

Famous race driver Barney Oldfield appeared at the 1.1-mile track, and there was a half-mile horse racing track inside the car oval, with grandstands facing east just off Highway 99 in the area where Walmart stands today. In addition to races, there were buildings for exhibitors and livestock.

By 1932, the Depression brought a hiatus for fairs, and they were held irregularly after that, said Miller. Some of the fairgrounds became federal government property. In 1974, the county opened the new fairgrounds at the current location off I-5 in Central Point.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

This photograph of the southern portion of the early Jackson County Fairgrounds was taken before 1929. Pacific Highway is at the left. Stewart Avenue crosses the railroad tracks in the upper left corner and Barnett Road parallels the line of trees crossing the top of the photograph. Southern Oregon Historical Society photo #1666