Most American history books tell about the bloody Indian wars that took place in the 19th century.
But few speak of the spectacular - and that’s the only word for them - battles that regularly were waged between Nez Perce warriors and white soldiers and settlers as late as 1910.
Onlookers would have seen something like this:
“With several hundred carbine rifles in the hands of both reds and whites splitting the night air in rapid succession and the constant heavy detonation of explosives representing General Howard’s heavy artillery, the spirited scene roused the audience to a pitch of wild enthusiasm. Add to this the hideous war cries of the Indians, the flashing color of their gaily-colored blankets and the war drum’s palpitating throb and a splendid panorama was presented.”
And where would these wild battles occur? At the Spokane Interstate Fair, of course.
In “The Fair Chronicles: 100 Years of Tradition,” from which the above passage is drawn, author Diane Nebel fills in a niche of regional history by recording the century-plus history of Spokane’s fairs.
Nebel, a former member of the Interstate Fair Board, spent five years researching what she has turned into a two-volume, 665-page testament to the people and events that have made Spokane’s fairs famous.
A health inspector for Spokane County and a self-described history buff, Nebel saw the need for such a history book even before she was named to the board in 1990.
“One of the things that I noticed when I was preparing for the position was there was little, if any, information out there,” she says. “That was one of the things that I thought I could bring to the board.”
So she began going through drawers and closets and other dusty places where musty records were stored.
“One gal piped up, ‘Well, we’ve got an attic full of old photo albums,’ ” Nebel said. “So I enlisted some help and they drug down about 40 albums, probably 24-by-36 inches - good-sized albums.”
Working on her lunch hour and during other free time, Nebel pored over newspaper microfilm and studied everything she could find in the Spokane Public Library’s Northwest Room.
Some of what she found might take even old-time Spokanites by surprise.
Now, most of us are familiar with the modern fair that typically takes place over 10 days in September. But that amalgamation of concerts, tractor displays, food booths, Future Farmers of America competitions, kid shows, rodeos, exhibits and assorted activities and contests doesn’t begin to capture the breadth of the fair’s long history.
“Actually, the fairs started before Washington became a state,” Nebel says. “It was a territory then, and the only social event of the year throughout the whole Inland Empire was to get your fruit together, your vegetables, bring them all together under one roof and show them off.”
Notice she says fairs. For as Nebel points out, there was more than one. And more than one site.
What began as an event of the Washington and Idaho Fair Association in 1886 was originally held at what we now know as Corbin Park. One of its most prominent draws was horse racing.
“That accounts for the oval features of the park as it is there today,” Nebel says.
The names and sites of subsequent fairs varied. The Northwestern Industrial Exposition (1890-91), for example, was held near the intersection of Sprague and Division. The Spokane Fruit Fair (1894-99) was held at Lincoln and Post, near where the Spokane Public Library now stands.
From 1901 to 1930 the Spokane Interstate Fair was held on the site of Playfair Race Track. But financial problems, namely a deficit overrun of $10,692, forced city officials to forgo plans to hold a fair in 1931.
And despite the occasional fairlike event - the Western Royal Livestock Show of 1931-32 and the Spokane Valley County Fair of 1942 - it wasn’t until 1952 that what again became the Spokane Interstate Fair moved to its current site at Broadway and Havana.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the fair organizers who worked from the ‘30s all the way up to 1952,” Nebel says. “They just kept at it, wouldn’t let it go.”
Whatever its incarnation, Spokane’s fair has featured a number of fascinating events over the past 111 years. To name just a few:
Gov. Ferry’s address at the 1891 Northwestern Industrial Exposition: “Thirteen years ago I visited Spokane Falls. … I little imagined that in 1891 I should come here to find the little village back then would become a magnificent city of over 25,000 inhabitants.”
Chief Joseph’s parade: On Oct. 6, 1899, the Nez Perce chief led some 1,000 braves on parade through the streets of Spokane. He later addressed the crowd and then participated in a re-enactment of the 1877 battle, described above, that would become an annual event.
Fatal airplane crash, Oct. 9, 1911: Cromwell Dixon, a 19-year-old flier, had just piloted his Curtis biplane from Helena, a feat that had earned him the title “the greatest aviator in the world.” But at 3:02 p.m. on this day, as Dixon attempted to entertain fairgoers, his plane crashed shortly after takeoff. “At 3:47 p.m.,” ran a story in the Spokane Daily Chronicle, “the young birdman was dead.”
Perfect babies: In a traditional event, some 300 babies vied for the title of Perfect Baby on Sept. 17, 1913. The winners: Carl Eckerman, 15 months, and Ellanor E. House, 20 months. Both received perfect 100 scores.
Farmer art: Fans attending the 1920 fair were greeted by a life-size statue of fair President Thomas Griffith made entirely of 300 pounds of butter.
Fatal parachute fall: On Sept. 5, 1923, daredevil Price Miller was killed when his parachute failed to open during a 150-foot jump from a balloon.
Sept. 21, 1927: Although the fair ended its five-day run on Sept. 10, one of the most notable events in Spokane history occurred 11 days later at the Playfair fairgrounds site when Charles Lindbergh addressed a crowd of 20,000 people - exactly three months and 22 days after he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Quote of 1930: Explaining why the 1930 fair hadn’t made a profit, despite drawing some 106,162 attendees (down from 120,671 from the year before), one of the stockholders, R. Insinger, said, “It is the trend of the times. The fair, a great drawing card a few years ago, no longer appeals to the public’s fancy. It has been attracted by other diversions and amusements.”
The rebirth: In its four-day run (Aug. 29-Sept. 1), the 1952 Spokane Interstate Fair attracted 40,000 fans. Admission was 50 cents.
Bearing up: During the 1960 fair (Sept. 13-18), a 3-year-old black bear, frightened by an approaching forklift, broke from its cage and remained loose for six hours before eating tranquilizer-laced bacon, calming down and being led away.
Slogans to remember: The motto of the 1982 fair (Sept. 11-19) was “Quack-A-Doodle-Oink.” Runner-up (from 1985): “Duckitty Doo-Dah.”
And that’s just a sampling.
Only five copies of “The Fair Chronicles: 100 Years of Tradition,” which Nebel calls “teaser books,” have been printed. The pages feature photocopied photographs and newspaper clippings, and both volumes could be improved with better editing and the inclusion of an index.
Nebel hopes that grant money can be found to print more copies, which then could be sold to the public. But for now, she’s justifiably proud of what’s been accomplished.
And if you’re interested, she’s available to give slide-lectures on all that she’s learned (call her at 324-1585).
“My intent was to let people of the Inland Empire know that there is something out there about their history,” she says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SEE FOR YOURSELF A copy of “The Fair Chronicles: 100 Years A copy of “The Fair Chronicle: 100 Years of Tradition,” by Diane Nebel, is on display in the Northwest Room of the downtown Spokane Public Library.
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