It's been a tough year for the Josephine County Fairgrounds. Now, it's time for a party.

The fairgrounds, which spent much of this year in a fight for its life, will this week play host to the Josephine County Fair as it marks 100 years.

If the past is any indicator of the future, crowds will line up Wednesday through Saturday to see displays of produce and livestock, ride the Ferris wheel and watch the tractor pulls Ñ it's good, old-fashioned fun.

Of course, things looked different in the fair's earliest days, when events were held at several locations around the county before the fairgrounds were established in 1927. And the event itself, officially named the Josephine County Fair in 1914, actually dates back a bit further than the century celebration about to get under way.

This year's fair marks the 100th anniversary of the name, but historians note that it's not the 100th annual event: In the early days, the fair was not always annual Ñ often held every other year or sometimes not at all, such as during times of war.

In the 1964 fair program, then-fair manager Lee Pruitt indicated the first fair was held in 1909, when local farmers gathered at the Woodman Hall in Williams to show produce and handiworks.

The fair could have even earlier beginnings, according to Deb West, Josephine County Fair historian and granddaughter of Percy T. Booth, author of "Grants Pass: The Golden Years." Booth died in 1992. Prior to that West served as his research assistant.

According to Booth's writings, the current fair was foreshadowed by the 1907 Grants Pass Irrigation and Industrial Fair. That event, spearheaded by the Grants Pass Commercial Club, later known as the Grants Pass Chamber of Commerce, was distinctive in that the name was chosen "purposely, so the event wouldn't be interpreted as a county sponsored agricultural fair," Booth wrote.

That fair's name came from events of the day: The construction of a dam three miles upstream from Grants Pass allowed for the generation of hydroelectric power and pumped water through a pipe up the northern hillside, where it emptied into a ditch and delivered water via gravity to the Golden Drift Mine.

Surplus power and water was used for industry and irrigation in the valley below.

Various activities were planned for that 1907 fair, a three-day event, including displays of animals and agriculture, rocks and minerals, hot air balloon rides, auto and livestock parades, horse races and other features that resemble a county fair.

One excitement for 1907 fair visitors, Booth wrote, was the discovery of gold in the dirt, rock and gravel of Sixth Street by an old prospector. Sixth Street had been partially graveled with rock from the Golden Drift Dam site along the Rogue River.

Even now, gold panning is one fair attraction that continues to intrigue young and old, West noted.

Meanwhile, by 1911, the county agricultural fair established two years earlier in Williams "had become so popular that exhibitors came all the way from Kerby and Fruitdale," Pruitt wrote. "In fact, it became so popular that Grants Pass took it away from Williams in 1912 and called it the Josephine County Grange Fair."

At that time, the fair was held downtown, with exhibitors staged in tents along I Street as well as inside the Calvert-Paddock building, now home to Elegance antique shop and other businesses.

"In 1914, the fair was moved to Murphy, and for the first time was called the Josephine County Fair," Pruitt wrote. The state had established a foundation for governing county fairs the previous year.

In 1916, the Josephine County Fair returned to Grants Pass, this time taking over what was known as "the Ball Park" or City Park, now Riverside Park. Excepting a hiatus during World War I, the fair continued at the park until 1926. Large tents housed the exhibits and, in 1923, a horse racing track was built around the park's baseball diamond, with a grandstand that served both.

In 1927, the county approved spending $25,000 for property to build a permanent home for the popular event, and the fairgrounds were established south of town off Redwood Highway. An exhibit building, pavillion and livestock sheds were ready for the fair that fall.

The grounds have been home to the fair ever since Ñ minus a four-year stretch during World War II, when the fair was discontinued for several years and the grounds hosted travelling military troops, as well as local dances and ball games.

Year-round operations were threatened earlier this year when the Josephine County Board of Commissioners issued an ultimatum that the fairgrounds had to pay its own way or be closed. Officials said the 2014 fair, however, was never in jeopardy of being canceled.

It costs about $625,000 annually to operate the fairgrounds, the Courier recently reported. In mid-July, fairgrounds officials reported the operation's books were in the black, thanks to a combined effort of community fundraising, grant moneys and enterprise revenue sources, including rental fees.

Structures have come and gone over the years, but many of the early buildings are still in use today. The commercial building looks much as it did in early days, except windows were covered and the ceiling lowered in recent years to maintain temperature control, West said.

The original entrance, which resembled a military fort, with stone pillars on each side, was torn down in the mid-1950s.

In 1948, a gully overgrown with blackberries was filled in to make room for the covered arena, a project instigated by the Josephine County Sheriff's Mounted Posse, an emergency services auxiliary group that's been a major force at the fair since its formation in 1946, West said.

The 1950s saw construction of a portable wooden floor, which could be placed inside the arena for dancing. Part of that floor remains in use today for dances at the Midway Stage.

A horse racing track and grandstand were early additions to the fairgrounds. Unlike the current racetrack, built in the 1970s, which sits east to west, the original track laid north to south Ñ and, in the late 1940s, was inset with a smaller track for racing midget cars.

From its beginnings in the 1930s in southern California, midget racing spread quickly across the country after WWII. A midget racing club was formed in Grants Pass in 1948, and from 1949 through the early 1950s midget races were a part of the county fair. The Caveman Speed Bowl, a 1/5-mile granite track, was constructed in front of the main grandstands.

Longtime Grants Pass resident and historian Michael Oaks recalls watching the 1949 midget race. "It was really something," he said of the small cars racing around the track. Oaks enlisted in the military for the next four years, so the 1949 event was the only race he attended.

Neighbors complained about the noise of the midget cars, and the event eventually was cancelled. Despite this, in the 1960s through the '70s, motorcycle races roared around the track. That also was ended due to noise complaints, Oaks said.

That hasn't kept motor sports from being part of recent fairs, West noted.

"The monster trucks and tractor pulls are some of the most popular events at the fair now," she said.

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Reach reporter Ruth Longoria Kingsland at 541-474-3718 or rkingsland@thedailycourier.com

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