The hustle behind fair bustle

It's not over for fair volunteers until everything is taken down and stored.

A worker attaches bunting to the Pavilion at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds to get things ready for the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days in this August 2009 photo. Every year hundreds of volunteers give their time to set up for the fair, and have  day after it's over to take it all down and store for the next year.

A worker attaches bunting to the Pavilion at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds to get things ready for the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days in this August 2009 photo. Every year hundreds of volunteers give their time to set up for the fair, and have day after it's over to take it all down and store for the next year. Photo by Jeff Horner.

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Before you know it, all that you see, taste, touch, smell and hear at The Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days will become just a happy memory.

Thousands of participants, thousands more visitors and myriad activities the five days and nights from Wednesday through Sunday. Then whoosh, it’s gone.

It all gets packed up and put away in the slim space of one day, when the fairgrounds switches from bustling throngs, bright lights, the aroma of a cornucopia of fair foods, the sight of livestock exhibits and the sounds of live music to the quiet of the day after.

All thanks to a phalanx of volunteers who set up and then take down the booths, exhibits and stages.

“It’s remarkable, what goes on behind the scenes,” said Cory Hewitt, general manager of the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds.

She has organized events for years, with quiet and planning before and the quiet of the space returned afterward.

Years ago she would go out to look at the area to be filled.

“I’d stand there ahead of time in this empty, huge park. When the festival was set up, it was like a city had popped up. I was reading stories about a gold rush town suddenly appearing and then disappearing,” she said.

Once all the plans are in place, volunteers, staff and board members race out to set up.

“We start out with a weekly operational meeting to talk about everything we need to accomplish,” Hewitt said. “Remember what all goes up must come back down. One new volunteer said she had no idea the amount of work it takes to put something like this on.

“With 28 buildings and all these events going on and all pulled together. It takes a month to put it up and it comes down in one day. I think maybe we’re mentally challenged.”

No. Just dedicated, sentimental, organized and efficient.

Organizers have had generations of practice — the annual event it oldest fair in the state, according to wallawallafairgrounds.com.

The Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days began in 1863 as a horse racing event that brought families and communities in the area together for years.

Later that decade it expanded into a large agricultural and industrial expo showcasing area crops and advances in farming methods. Through the years since it has meant fun, entertainment and education about the importance of agriculture both locally and across the nation.

It takes a huge number of volunteers to set things up and take it all down. Hewitt said 600 letters go out to volunteers for their appreciation dinner.

Sam Waldron, director in charge of the Kids Farm Center and the Agriculture Displays, is always looking for help. “We can put them in an area they will enjoy,” he said.

The tear-down is built-in by design, Waldron said, adding that once things are down and stored they’re ready to go for the following year.

“It’s a reverse process than the set-up,” he said. “It’s like taking a jigsaw puzzle apart. That’s a lot faster than putting it together ... We’ve been doing this for so many years now, we know how to do it. We have great crews that have specific jobs. It comes down to the people.”

Designing the next fair is a balance of the familiar with the new, as well as safety where to place things. It’s also a race to get the grounds ready for other events hard on the heels of the fair, Waldron said.

Walla Walla University is part of the volunteer pipeline, sending about 20 students. As workers take down banners and signs, the students take them to one location where they are washed, rolled, wrapped and stored, ready for next year. Students from Walla Walla High School also help clean and get everything ready to go.

The carnival, its own private business that travels to fairs and events far and wide, handles its own set up and tear down.

“The carnival crew starts breaking down at midnight and by Monday morning there’s just a few pieces left,” Hewitt said.

After it’s all done, sprinklers are put on the lawn, silently beginning preparations for the next time.

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