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Rivalry was fierce in first Jackson County fair

It’s a hot time at the old County Fair these days, but hopefully not as hot as it has been in the past. A lot of us still remember walking the 100-plus-degree midway in tank tops and shorts, while a mini-cascade of perspiration rippled down our foreheads.

I’m writing this a week before opening day at Central Point, so if temperatures have suddenly soared — please remember, soothsaying and weather prognostication are not included in History Snoop’s bag of tricks.

The farmers and ranchers of Jackson County first got together in February 1859, a week before Oregon became a state, and decided that a county fair was a good idea. Of course, they were well aware of the Rogue Valley’s unpredictable weather, but that wasn’t the reason they chose Oct. 4 and 5 for their festivities. By then, the harvest would be in and most of the hard work would be over.

The Agricultural Fair, as it was called then, was held around the Jackson County Courthouse in Jacksonville. Not the brick structure we see today, but the old, two-story, wooden building that was eventually auctioned off for $116 and replaced in 1883.

With prizes ranging from a signed certificate to $10 in cash, the competition was intense. Which man owned the best blooded stallion, suckling colt, brood mare, 2-year-old filly, or “milch” cow? Who would win $5 by milling 100 pounds of flour from 130 pounds of their own wheat? How much pride could there really have been in walking away with a certificate won for best cabbage, onion, turnip, potato, tomato, or various fruits?

Women could also compete. Best bed quilt, $5; specimen of needle work, $2; pair of socks (woolen or cotton), $1; or loaf of bread, $1.

Unfortunately, the list of winners doesn’t survive, but we do know that William Myer and Dr. Jesse Robinson tied for the men’s most wins, with six. Myer was a successful rancher and horse breeder and Dr. Robinson owned a Jacksonville hotel. Mrs. Fidelia Stearns led the ladies with two wins.

This was supposed to be the first of many annual fairs; however, it never worked out that way. The 1860 fair, the following year, was apparently a disaster. “It would be well if we all could forget the last County Fair,” said a reporter for Jacksonville’s Oregon Sentinel newspaper, “for certainly it was an affair more of mortification and shame than of pride and honor to the Valley. No matter now; however, whether anybody was at fault for that humiliating failure or not.”

The reporter asked everyone to work together to make the next fair the “pride of the County,” yet that one never got off the ground. The next fair was a horse-racing-only fair in 1870 at William Bybee’s track, north of Jacksonville. Four moderately successful fairs followed over the next 17 years. Then, after a “Fruit Fair” held west of Medford in 1889, Central Point hosted eight fairs; Medford, two; and Ashland, one, before trouble struck again.

The 20th century had its own difficulties, but space is short and that’s a story for another day.

Right now — it’s fair time! Don’t forget your sun block.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.