Malheur County Fair faces challenges pulls through with volunteers

Pansy the Clown tells 4-year-old Nolan Scott to smile for the camera after he requests a balloon sword at the Malheur County Fair last week. The fair encountered a number of hurdles but volunteers helped save the day. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO — The Malheur County Fair was plagued with problems before the gates even opened to the public last week.

“We all survived,” Lynelle Christiani, Malheur Fairgrounds manager, said. 

That’s a win in her book. 

The hiccups started the Sunday before the fair when the grounds caretaker quit unexpectedly. 

The caretaker is typically the lead when it comes to unpredictable infrastructure problems, which is why when a new plumbing pump failed during the fair, volunteers had to organize quickly to solve the problem.

“All of the stuff you can never anticipate, that’s why the caretaker position is so valuable during the fair,” said Shad Hansen, chair of the fair board.


Hansen said that the fair board was “very lucky” that volunteers came together to solve the plumbing problems and get the system back online. 

When the Funtime Carnival Company didn’t show up on Wednesday for dollar day rides, Christiani sought explanations but said she got none.

Funtime Carnival Company owner Scott Roper said the carnival was delayed because of a lack of truck drivers available to haul the rides from southern Idaho. Roper said that while hiring truck drivers is always a challenge, this year was particularly difficult because of his divorce. 

“We had truck drivers built into the family,” Roper said, but explained that his divorce cut those ties.

The fair board tried to solve the problem by hiring labor for the carnival rides, but because of minimum wage differences in Oregon and Idaho – where the company is based – the carnival company couldn’t afford the Oregon labor. 

“The carnival limped in,” according to Christiani, and attempted to set up rides for Saturday, the final day of the fair. Due to the lack of labor and how the rides had been constructed, the fair board made the call to not run the rides.

“That decision, it is a tough one. When they operate in that type of fashion and they are three and a half days late to a four-day event, it makes you wonder how safe it is,” Hansen said. 

Because the Funtime Carnival Company did not have workers traveling with the rides, the company would have had to hire local workers who were not familiar with ride operations. 

“It seemed like they were going to be understaffed with trained people,” said Hansen.

Roper said that the board’s decision to cancel the carnival was a financial hit, but said there are “no hard feelings.”

“We screwed up,” Roper said. “The communication was not good between us.”

Christiani said that all of the pre-purchased carnival ride wristbands have been refunded. 

Finding a carnival company to serve the fair is always a struggle, said Christiani. Between the safety concerns of this year’s provider and a previous carnival company contracted to operate at the fair being banned from working in Oregon, the pickings are slim. 

Plus, Christiani said it is difficult to convince companies to work eastern Oregon county fairs over western Oregon fairs. Fairs on the west side typically see much higher attendance and cooler temperatures. Roper confirmed that in previous years Malheur County has always been one of the lowest profiting fairs for the Funtime Carnival Company on the fair circuit.

“Finding a carnival may be difficult in the future,” Christiani said. While the official numbers are not available yet, Christiani knows fair attendance was down this year and attributes the drop to the lack of carnival rides. 

Another point of contention was the number of white ribbons given out during the pig judging on Friday, Aug. 2. 

A white ribbon indicates that the owner needs to improve on their animal quality, whether that be through their raising techniques or judgement of what stock to buy. The ribbon also means that the animal owner can’t sell their livestock during the Saturday auction.

The swine judge, Jim Brem, gave out six white ribbons to students this year – an act that sparked a petition for an investigation into the fairness of the judging. The petition, submitted to Christiani, has 30 signatures.

When she first heard that participants were upset with the number of white ribbons given out, Christiani asked Brem his reasoning. Brem, who judges pigs nationally, stated that he wouldn’t want the pig meat on his table or anyone else’s.

“To me, that’s a legitimate response,” Christiani said. “He’s not being pissy because he doesn’t like the color of the pig.”

Christiani said that her goal this week is to figure out how to launch an investigation – something she has never had to do before. Although a white ribbon means that the pig is not allowed to be sold, Christiani said all six pigs were sold at Saturday’s auction.

“The community stepped up and took care of their own,” Christiani said.

Looking forward, the fair board is attempting to find solutions for nearly overcrowded camp sites, which Christiani said is on the “edge of being unsafe,” as well as options for moving the fair to a cooler time of the year.

Despite all of the disruptions, the fair board chair believes the Malheur County Fair was able to roll with the punches.

“Past those things, it was fair as usual,” Hansen said.

Have a news tip? Reporter Isabella Garcia: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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