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Front & Center: For Northeast Washington Fair manager, it’s a year-round job

“If you want to learn to swing dance,” says Northeast Washington Fair manager Lori Matlock, “you go to the Pig Barn at 7 o’clock on Friday night.” This year’s fair runs Aug. 23-26. (Michael Guilfoil / The Spokesman-Review)
“If you want to learn to swing dance,” says Northeast Washington Fair manager Lori Matlock, “you go to the Pig Barn at 7 o’clock on Friday night.” This year’s fair runs Aug. 23-26. (Michael Guilfoil / The Spokesman-Review)

COLVILLE – The Northeast Washington Fair is just four days long.

So it’s not unusual for someone, upon meeting fair manager Lori Matlock, to ask, “What do you do the rest of the year?”

Matlock might offer an exhaustive explanation if she could spare the time.

But she can’t.

Currently, she’s working 16-hour days preparing for this year’s fair, which runs Aug, 23-26 and traces its roots back more than 120 years.

Earlier this month, she hosted 11 Little League teams in town for a tournament.

“That’s a riot,” she observed with characteristic enthusiasm.

Matlock keeps the fairgrounds open year-round for everything from New Year’s Eve celebrations and Easter egg hunts to weddings and class reunions.

During a recent interview, she discussed horses, homebuilding and why fairs matter.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Matlock: Here in Colville. I’m fourth generation. My great-grandpa was the first barber. My grandpa built most of the sidewalks. My parents – Shirley and Tom Dodson – had a paint store on Main Street that’s still there under their name.

S-R: Do you remember your first fair?

Matlock: That was in seventh grade. I had all sorts of pets, including a quarter horse named Speedy Gonzales. But I didn’t grow up in the fair system, so this was all new to me when I was hired in 2007.

S-R: What was your first job?

Matlock: Next door to my parents’ paint store was a pharmacy with the old soda fountain, and I worked there when I was 15. All the guys off Main Street would stop by for coffee and pie in the afternoon.

S-R: Did you have a career in mind?

Matlock: I thought about physical therapy because I loved sports and grew up in a house where you helped others. I went to Spokane Falls and played volleyball. Then I got married and had three kids, so that curtailed the physical therapy. Later I built houses for 20 years.

S-R: Tell me about that.

Matlock: My parents were into refinishing furniture, and I learned from an early age how to do that. When a couple of homebuilders asked me to do finish work – stain, lacquer – that morphed into other opportunities. I got my general contractor license and helped with roofing, concrete and framing. But painting and finish work were always left to me.

S-R: Then what?

Matlock: Eleven years ago, when I was in my mid-50s, I realized my body wouldn’t move so well if I stuck with building. At the time, four people were running the fairgrounds, and there was a little bit of drama between them and the fair. A couple of people encouraged me to apply for the job. Since I had the ability to do anything – drive the tractor, dig holes, whatever – they hired me.

S-R: You replaced four full-time people?

Matlock: I guess. (laugh) It sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it? One lady worked for the fair association. But because of economics and insurance, the county took over managing the fair. One person was the secretary. One managed the nonfair-related events that happen here. And the other person was a groundskeeper. Oh, and they had a part-time lady who came and cleaned the bathrooms.

S-R: Did you have mentors to smooth the transition?

Matlock: Nope. And they hired me in June, and the fair is in August. That first year was kind of spooky. But the kids who are superintendents of the barns – I say “kids,” but they’re in their 40s and 50s – they’re just awesome.

S-R: So you run the fair?

Matlock: I do. And the fairgrounds the rest of the year. For instance, we used to have fireworks on the Fourth of July. But I canceled that because of the fire danger, and now we host a big New Year’s Eve party with kids’ crafts and games, snowmen and a fireworks finale.

S-R: What else goes on here?

Matlock: When no one else wanted to do an Easter egg hunt because it was too much work, I offered to do one. We’ve gone from stuffing 2,000 eggs to 12,000 last year. The next thing that came along was the rodeo, which the rodeo association quit sponsoring because of insurance issues.

S-R: Anything else?

Matlock: In September 2015, when rural folks were displaced by wildfires, my grounds filled up with 29 families. They lived here for about a month.

S-R: How has fair attendance done during the past decade?

Matlock: We’ve been blessed. We’ve gone from 5,500 to 8,000 – 12,000 if you count repeat visitors.

S-R: Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

Matlock: We invite people to display their largest vegetables – each year it’s a different one. One year we decided to display the largest weed. That was really dumb, because people brought giant thistles that were about to go to seed.

S-R: Why are traditional fairs important?

Matlock: It’s kind of like having a grandparent. You can walk up to a kid and say, “What did you bring to the fair?” and they’ll show you a picture or a critter, and beam with pride. We also have a section for arts and crafts by people in assisted living. And we have what I believe is the only talent show at a fair in the state – everything from belly dancers to gymnastics to cloggers.

S-R: Do you also bring in professional entertainment?

Matlock: Yes. The Kelly Hughes (country and western) Band out of Idaho is always big on Saturday night. And I try to give all the local bands a spotlight. If you want to learn to swing dance, you go to the Pig Barn at 7 o’clock on Friday night.

S-R: What’s new this year?

Matlock: We rescued a lookout tower from a peak near Hunters about 40 miles south of here. I just got done repainting it, and a gal who used to be a fire lookout is going to be on hand to explain its history.

S-R: Has interest in any exhibits waned over the years?

Matlock: There aren’t as many horses as there used to be. It’s a time-consuming sport. But we’ve worked pretty hard to bring back the old tractors, which were starting to fade away.

S-R: How much is admission?

Matlock: A weekend pass is $10. We haven’t raised our prices in years. And the first 2,000 visitors on Thursday and Sunday get in free. The hours are 9 to 9 all four days.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Matlock: Seeing people have a good time.

S-R: What do you like least?

Matlock: There aren’t enough hours in the day.

S-R: How many hours do you put in?

Matlock: I make sure the front door is open by 8 in the morning, but I’m usually on the grounds before that. I typically go home about 9 this time of year. Leading up to the fair, I put in 14 to 16 hours a day. In winter, I’m here 8 to 5 because I have to plow and salt the sidewalks, and we have events.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Matlock: My age – I’ll turn 65 next month. It’s a question of how long I can do this physically.

S-R: Would it take four people to replace you?

Matlock: That would be really arrogant of me. (giggle) But you’d need someone with an unconditional love of people and an unconditional love of work. This is pretty much my life.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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