Walla Walla residents joyful over the return of the County Fair

Ross Koller, Staff Reporter

The Walla Walla County Fair, like many other long-standing community traditions, had its 154-year streak broken when it wasn’t held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The cancellation of this event did not have as large an impact on the local community that other such interruptions did, but the degree to which this event was missed should not be mistaken.

One of the main events that took place at the fair was a concert, headlined by the band Chicago. Photo contributed by Geraint Webb.

The return of this event was a big milestone in this community’s recovery from the pandemic that has affected communities all over the globe. There were many challenges in getting to the pursuit of having a fair at all, let alone a successful and safe one. 

Greg Lybeck, fair organizer, spoke on the myriad of hurdles and setbacks in getting this event off the ground and through the planning stages to a successful opening. The first major hurdle was in determining whether to even make the necessary preparations to put the fair on. 

Governor Inslee had not drawn down COVID-19 restrictions, and as such a large gathering such as the fair was still not permitted. As a result, Lybeck and the committee did not feel “comfortable spending money” for the necessary fair preparations. None of the usual preliminary work behind the scenes had been undertaken until June 30 when the state was officially opened with no restrictions. This left the committee in charge of putting on the fair with a monumental task: 12 months worth of work to do in just 2 months. 

“All of our staff and board members put in a lot of extra hours to meet our Sept. 1 deadline,” Lybeck said. 

COVID-19 was of course a big safety concern, and many precautions were taken to mitigate the risk. 

“We put hundreds of signs up … informing our guests on the state guidelines. Hand-sanitizing stations could be found almost everywhere you visited, [and] we made masks available for any of our guests,” Lybeck said. 

A number of Whitman students attended the fair. For some it was their first time attending and for others this year was a continuation of a long tradition. Sara Marshall, a first-year, attended the fair for the first time this year and described it as “definitely vibrant. The food smelled great, and everyone around me seemed to be enjoying themselves.” 

She found the greatest enjoyment in the elephant ear she shared with a friend. 

“Fried dough, cinnamon sugar and whipped cream has never tasted so good,” Marshall said. 

First-year Alejandro Mata, originally from Walla Walla, has gone to the fair every year since he was six years old. He remembers drinking copious amounts of lemonade, and the year when he graduated from the little kid rides to the big kid rides. Nowadays, Mata doesn’t go on the rides much: he is too busy sharing Mexican cultural dance, performing at the fair as a part of the dance group called Las Chiquillas Ballet. 

Audiences could watch professional rodeo events during three nights of the fair. Photo contributed by Geraint Webb.  

The fair’s cancellation didn’t really strike Mata last year, but he described feeling weird about coming back this year. He realized that he had missed out on a fair he would have shared with his childhood friends one last time, as a senior in high school. 

Participating in the parade before the fair, Alejandro shared perhaps his fondest fair memory: handing out candy to the local children. 

“I didn’t realize how fun it is to see a bunch of kids,” said Mata, smiling. “Their faces light up when you pour a little candy out in front of them. It could be like two Tootsie Rolls, and they will flip out.” 

This was perhaps the overarching theme of this year’s fair: pure unadulterated joy. When asked how this fair compared to others in the past Lybeck said that although it was his first year organizing for Walla Walla, those in attendance were “as happy as I have seen at any fair I have been a part of.”