Highway 126 was gridlocked last weekend — not from excited beachcombers taking advantage of the sunny weather or travelers visiting Fern Ridge Lake. Instead, thousands traveled to Veneta for the 50th Anniversary of the Oregon Country Fair.
Entering OCF is like stepping into another world — it’s hard to believe it's just 30 minutes outside of Eugene. Moving through its pathways is like walking through a marketplace in a medieval fairy tale. On one side of the tree-canopied path, guests may see a blacksmith hammering away on a project, and on the other side, an artisan making essential oils and tiny, 3-inch hats.
OCF is a whimsical and ever-changing fair, held once a year on land that has been cultivated to host the fair and sustain its natural beauty. The fair brings together concerts, cuisines, arts and alternative lifestyles.
“This place right here is full of love,” said OCF attendee Jojo, also known as Ninja Peach, a dedicated member of the fair since 1988.
In 1969, artisans from Eugene wanted to build a community of like-minded people that could create an environment that encouraged creativity within the arts, alternative education and philanthropic endeavors. So they created the nonprofit Oregon Country Fair, intending to fund a local alternative school. Organizers found a small farm in Eugene where they held their first festival, inviting local artisans to fund the event and setting in motion the 50-year-long tradition of OCF, according to the The Oregonian.
The first fair welcomed 3,000 attendees, according to Oregon Encyclopedia. Word spread quickly and attendance grew, creating a tight-knit community. In the 1970s, the capacity of the small farm could no longer support the fair’s growth. Organizers then found a plot of land they could rent, 15 miles outside of Eugene in Veneta, Oregon, where they are currently located.
By 1986, OCF raised enough funds to purchase the entire 242 acres of land. After relocating, the fair quickly expanded into a beloved festival that holds a wide spectrum of entertainers, hundreds of vendors, local non-profits, and artisans of many mediums. Each summer, a temporary city sprouts on the land, a home to a community dedicated to supporting the yearly event.
OCF has grown to showcase over 350 different vendors and 19 stages for entertainment. This year, the festival’s 50th anniversary drew in over 50,000 attendees throughout the weekend — the largest number since the 1980s, according to a press release.
To this day, the fair stands with its founding mission: finding ways to give back to the community through the celebration of the arts and developing and funding non-profits.
Over the last 15 years, OCF has donated more than $600,000 to non-profits, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia.
The immersive experience OCF offers is built to provide a joyful and memorable environment for attendees.
The fair features a figure-eight pathway that branches off into differently-themed regions. Themes include sustainability, non-profits and entertainment. These regions also have concert stages, artisan booths and food.
Heading north from OCF's entrance toward the main stage, most fair-goers will stumble across an area called Community Village — it's hard to miss. Since 1976, the village has been home to non-profits that share the same values as the fair, according to the OCF webpage, and is located in the heart of the fair. Its central location is representative of how much importance fair organizers place on promoting non-profits.
Community Village is “an information center to learn about arts, health and alternative education,” said Norma Sax, who has been involved as either an organizer, volunteer or employee for 42 years.
Robin Marks-Fife, a volunteer, artisan and part of OCF for 46 years, said that this year organizers wanted to reciprocate the love from the community and give them something special. So, they built a stage for artisans to display their creative processes from start to finish. One of the artisans dedicated their time to building a mobile that would hang outside of the Ritz, another region of the fair. The mobile included contributions from guests.
“When people come back every year and see [the mobile], they’ll know they had a part in the fair,” said Marks-Fife.
Another region, Energy Park, is just one of the many pieces of OCF that has stuck to its roots. The park was founded in 1981 to promote and develop alternative technologies and organic agriculture.
The park has developed over time, focusing on expanding the amount of renewable energy used at the fair.
“When we first started Energy Park, it took decades to see a return on investment for solar powers,” said Blake Scott, one of the head organizers of Energy Park and an OCF member for 33 years.
Now, it only takes about six years to break even and save money with new renewable energy sources for the fair, Scott said.
Energy Park contains 32 booths for non-profit vendors and innovators dedicated to alternative energies. At its entrance is a large metal dish that cooks popcorn with the sun’s heat. Right next to the sun-popped popcorn, motorized bikes run on air compression — just a few of the many alternative-energy innovations.
“At Energy Park, you can come and take a warm shower heated by the sun, charge your phone with solar power or listen to music on a stage powered completely by the sun’s energy,” Scott said. “We already have a few stages that are solar-powered and we plan to expand to other ones.”
Appreciation of music and other arts is integral to the fair. This year featured a few hundred different acts ranging from music to juggling and comedy to dancers.
The University of Oregon’s favorite joke book salesman, Frog, who sits on 13th Avenue most days, delivered a comedy set at the Community Village stage. He invited people to come up and tell jokes as long as they were kid-friendly.
On Saturday afternoon, the sounds of trumpets and saxophones echoed down Shady Lane. The music drew fair-goers toward the Shady Grove stage, where Caitlin Jemma & The Goodness, a soul and jazz fusion band, was performing, lyricizing self-love and confidence. Whether swing dancing or just moving to the rhythm, nobody in the crowd stood still.
Other performances around the fair included Portland band The Dandy Warhols, Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, UO student band Laundry and many others.
The 50th anniversary of the Oregon Country Fair welcomed a community of OCF veterans and newcomers alike. It was a dry, family-friendly event, not allowing alcohol on its premises, with displayed signs also prohibiting marijuana. Oregon Country Fair is moving beyond its stereotype of being a drug-filled hippie’s playground.
It is easy to become entranced by the fair’s rich history; it’s an event that has honored its roots. The community the fair has created allows for it to thrive.
Some Oregonians spend the year planning their return to the fair; the festival is a second home to many. OCF even has its own theme song, saying, “Everyone’s home at the Oregon Country Fair.”
Bumbling through OCF’s intricate walkways, it is difficult to absorb the myriad of sights, sounds and smells. With every sign meticulously handcrafted, bizarre statues and sculptures at every turn and people-watching galore, it’s nearly impossible to see all that OCF has to offer. But that’s the beauty of it.
For more information on Oregon Country Fair, visit www.oregoncountryfair.org.