Staff, vendors – including resilient family food stand – claim ‘success’ as Washington State Fair ends

Mike Christensen said his family’s partly charred red wooden bench is a symbol of resilience.

The bench has been a fixture near the Sales Family Food Stand since the stand opened in 1923 at the Washington State Fairgrounds. In April, the bench survived a fire that razed the family’s iconic business and nearby Evergreen Hall.

Christensen is part of five generations of Sales family members who’ve grown up at the Puyallup fairgrounds. He said the bench is a reminder that sometimes “you’ve got to pick yourself up and just keep going.”

That’s exactly what his family did with the help of summer weather and bustling crowds at the annual Washington State Fair, which ended Sunday.

There were challenges that came with moving their longtime business inside a temporary tent. But business was a huge success, Christensen said.

“It was a very, very good year,” he said Monday. “The weather was shining on us for 17 days.”

Monday was a different kind of busy than the fairgrounds had seen from Sept. 5 through closing day.

Where large crowds of fairgoers once stood, fair staff, exhibitors and vendors were rapidly tearing down food booths, games, rides and displays. U-Hauls, trucks and vans packed up the remnants.

Although the fair no longer releases attendance numbers, officials said the event hit its benchmark of more than 1 million visitors.

Early estimates show that ticket revenue at the gates was up about 20 percent over last year, said spokeswoman Karen LaFlamme.

“We have not had a price increase in approximately three years,” she wrote in an email Monday, “so we are comparing apples to apples.”

LaFlamme noted that figure isn’t final and doesn’t necessarily represent a 20-percent jump in attendance, since admission for children and seniors is lower and more of them may have attended this year.

Concert grandstand sales also were the highest in the history of the fair, according to a fair news release.

LaFlamme said the weather, which was sunny and warm almost every day, was a major factor in attracting large crowds.

“There were sprinkles late one night at the end of a concert, but they were only sprinkles and stopped shortly after they started,” LaFlamme said.

Another boost came from corporate events, she added.

Few workers had time to chat at the fairgrounds Monday, but those who did mirrored Christensen’s positive feelings.

Mike Batnick, a recruiter for Tacoma’s American Legion Post 138, said the pavilion building saw “a lot of foot traffic.”

The building doesn’t normally attract as many crowds as other parts of the fairgrounds, he said, “since we don’t sell anything.” But this year was different.

“More than anything else, it was the good weather,” Batnick said.

Eileen Meyer, superintendent of Hobby Hall, said “marvelous” weather likely attracted crowds, but sell-out concerts also contributed.

“Some days we had shoulder-to-shoulder people here,” Meyer said. “Overall, I think we had more people here this year than last.”

Meyer said about 1,000 entries in Hobby Hall will take about three days to dismantle; that’s also about how long it will take for the entire fair to be packed up, LaFlamme said.

Outside the agriculture tent – which stands where Evergreen Hall did before the fire – Corinne Tobeck watched as a fair staffer used a forklift to slowly lower a 1,485-pound pumpkin into the bed of her truck. It took a few tries to make it fit just right.

The Littlerock resident was on pumpkin duty for her daughter-in-law, the grower, who couldn’t be there to reclaim the massive squash.

Tobeck said fair staffers were helpful moving the pumpkin; hauling it to the fair early this month was a bit more challenging.

“It took a mighty powerful tractor,” she said.

Inside the tent, the smell of dirt and produce wafted through the air as participants quickly dismantled what were once elaborate grange displays.

Just outside, Christensen and a group of family and friends worked to take down the Sales family tent. The future is still uncertain, but the charred red bench reminded them that they’ll keep moving forward.

“I feel like we won this year,” he said. “It took some time to adjust, but it was a success.”