When it comes to state fair pageants, you might think of blue ribbons awarded for strawberry jam, homemade quilts, or an award-winning zucchini. But the Oregon State Fair hosts a slew of competitions you might not have thought of.
Competitive table setting, for example.
The Oregon State Fair awards blue ribbons for the best painted or homemade puppet, fly tying and scrapbooking. Perhaps you have grown the “most misshapen fruit” or the “twistiest vegetable”. There are prizes for poetry, cake decorating, best diorama, and holiday tree decorating.
The 2022 Oregon State Fair has 1,113 different competition classes and 177 divisions in what is called the “Creative Living” department. This includes everything from garden produce and crafts to canning and collectibles.
Yes, you can be rewarded for having the most interesting collection of things (Ideas include coin collections, baseball cards, or snow globes.)
“We look at other county fairs to see what the trends are to make sure there’s not something popular we’re missing out on,” said Jenni Oberan-Smith, director of Creative Living competitions at the Oregon State Fair. “Our crafts and leisure sector is probably the most unusual and the most open. If it’s something that showcases a talented Oregonian, if it’s something unique and interesting, we definitely try to make accommodations for it.
Some categories reflect the times. There are several categories for cosplay creations and Lego structures. Macrame, the string art whose popularity peaked in the 1970s, was added back in 2019 after seeing a cultural comeback.
Other categories are perennial favorites.
“We don’t want to lose the traditional methods of quilting and preserving food and so on, because we think that’s really important,” Oberan-Smith said. “Some of these traditional arts, we want to keep them alive.”
Formal table decorating – aka setting a table – is an ever-popular category that regularly sees all 20 entry slots filled. There is already a waiting list to be seated at this year’s table contest.
“It’s very specific and very, very competitive,” Oberan-Smith said. The contest guide features a 20-point checklist on how to properly set up a place setting. “And it’s not even for the money, it’s for a blue ribbon.”
In 2019, the Oregon State Fair received just over 4,500 entries and awarded 637 ribbons, including 234 first-place blue ribbons. These entries came from approximately 1,400 different Oregonians representing 27 of the state’s 36 counties.
The man who has probably won more blue ribbons at the state fair than anyone else is Larry Smith of Portland. He has attended the state fair every year since 1967, when he was 10 years old.
“I had a competitive grandmother who lived in Canby,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in gardening, but she made me work in her garden with her, and she said, ‘Why don’t we bring vegetables to the county fair?’ We took five entries and got two blue ribbons, one red and one white. And I was hooked. »
That same year, they entered the Oregon State Fair. Smith didn’t earn any blue ribbons for that effort, but he didn’t give up.
“It was the very first time I was really motivated to do something and try something,” Smith said.
He still remembers his first two blue ribbons at the State Fair in 1970, won for lima beans and an eggplant.
“If I had the talent back then to do cartwheels, I would have done it,” he said. “It’s a self-affirming understanding that I did something right, and someone else who is an expert in this area has recognized that.”
Smith became very competitive – and very good – in State Fair flower and agricultural competitions. From 1990 to 2008, he won the contest prize in the vegetable division every year.
He hasn’t missed a state fair or Clackamas County fair in 55 years — with the exception of 2020, when fairs were canceled during the pandemic.
“It was, I could say, emotionally difficult because it was something I had been doing for over 50 years,” Smith said. “It was just part of my summer stressing myself out from all these different fairs and having to tend the plants and keep them perfectly manicured until the right hour.”
Smith has lost count of how many Fair Ribbons he has won, but the figure is safely in the thousands. Ribbons, rosettes, trophies and awards poured out of her “war room” and began to fill the living room fireplace mantle.
Smith now judges vegetable entries at the Oregon State Fair and is therefore barred from competition, but he still enters the floral division. Last year, her flowers won eight blue ribbons and two top divisions.
He always brings vegetable starters for display only and is happy to offer advice to any growers who ask for it.
“When you participate in something like this, it’s sort of community service,” he said. “When people go to an event like a fair, they want to have something they can watch and learn from.”
Those considering entering the floral categories should be encouraged by new limits on the number of classes a competitor can enter.
Oberan-Smith said it was not a “Larry Smith rule”, but the result of space and budget constraints. That means non-Larry Smiths might have a better chance of winning a ribbon this year.
“There’s a lot of opportunity and bragging rights,” Smith said. “When you win a blue ribbon, you can go around to all your friends, family, and neighbors and say, ‘I’m a winning champion at the Oregon State Fair,’ and that sounds pretty awesome.”
HOW TO ENTER:
The deadline to enter the visual arts categories, which include photography, fine art and calligraphy, has already passed, but other categories of crafts, fiber art, building blocks and collectibles are open for online registration until August 17. Entrants must be Oregon residents to compete. Free entry. For more information, including entry requirements for each class, visit https://oregonstatefair.org/competitions/creative-living.
Entries for the contest will be exhibited at the Oregon State Fair, Aug. 26-Sept. 5, at the Oregon State Fair & Exposition Center, 2330 17th St. NE in Salem.