The annual Oregon Country Fair is in just a few weeks. If you lived through the ‘60s, this is a chance to go back in time. The Fair happens every July on a piece of land 13 miles outside of Eugene, Oregon, off Highway 126 near the town of Veneta. It’s a huge festival out in the woods that draws 45,000 people over a 3-day period.
The festival got its start in 1969 to benefit an alternative children’s school and was held in Eugene. Originally called the Oregon Renaissance Fair, in 1976 the name was changed to the Oregon Country Fair. In 1970 it moved to its current location. I arrived in Eugene that fall. The country had dramatically changed while I was away in the Army. There were love-ins and be-ins, black riots in the big cities, assassinations, the riotous ‘68 Democratic Convention in Chicago and Richard Nixon was President. The music had changed too. While I played soldier, the youth were listening to radically different new rock ‘n’ roll groups like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. The Beatles had morphed into Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Buffalo Springfield and Cream had come and gone while I was away and The Animals, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Yardbirds were gone forever. Timothy Leary advised American youth to “Turn on, tune in and drop out”. Woodstock and Altamont were over and journalists were describing the end of the ‘60s counter culture movement. The party was over and I had just arrived.
In 1970 right after I was released from the Army, I drove around the west in my brand new MG. My constant dilemma was whether or not to pick up the long-haired hitchhiker on the side of the road. If it was a young woman, it was a no-brainer. After dropping off one mild-mannered long-haired guy, wrapped in a Mexican serape, I realized he had taken off with my Seiko watch. I had placed it in front of the gear shift lever to keep track of time and Mr. Love and Peace stole it right out from under my nose. I wondered whether my flashy silver watch would impress the chicks at the commune where he was headed. I didn’t stop for hitchhikers much after that. Having been indoctrinated by the military and traumatized by war, I viewed these young drifters as undisciplined, self-centered, naive, unrealistic slackers, but I also envied their free spirit and sense of community and belonging.
I enrolled at the Junior college in Eugene for fall quarter. Eugene appeared to have been one of the hubs of counter culture activity. The remnants were everywhere. In 1972, the Oregon Renaissance Fair featured the Grateful Dead with proceeds going to the Springfield Creamery. That year the Creamery was struggling, so the money from the concert and a subsequent movie called “Sunshine Daydream” helped keep it afloat. The tickets were printed on yogurt labels.
Springfield Oregon is just across the river from Eugene. The Springfield Creamery was started by Chuck and Sue Kesey in 1960. Chuck is Ken Kesey’s brother. Ken was our local famous author and Merry Prankster. He often performed readings at the Fair. The Creamery limped along financially until it found a niche product, Nancy’s Yogurt. An interesting aside; according to the Springfield Creamery website, the sale of Nancy’s Yogurt didn’t take off until it was introduced to the Bay area by an ex U of O student, Gilbert Rosborne, and his business partner, Huey Lewis, yeah, that Huey Lewis. Huey hadn’t quite made the big-time yet and he and Gil were earning money distributing underground comic books to natural food stores around the country. While passing through the Eugene area, they decided to add Nancy’s Yogurt to their inventory. They filled a rented U-haul full of the yogurt with lots of bags of ice and hauled it all the way to San Francisco where the yogurt was well received.
In 1978, Katie and I worked in Ritta’s Burritos at the Oregon Country Fair. Ritta and Katie were friends and worked as nurses’ aides at a local nursing home. I was in graduate school at the time and worked there too on the night shift. I was eager to get to know the cute Asian I’d see when I came on duty. I found out that she helped Ritta at her burrito booth every week at the Eugene Saturday Market. Neither of them knew me, but probably had seen me around the nursing home. For numerous Saturdays, I hung around the Saturday Market and bought a burrito for lunch. It took me quite a few Saturdays and a boat load of burritos before getting up my nerve to ask Katie out. When I finally did, she said yes to having herbal tea with me at Mamma’s Truck Stop.‘
Soon we were a couple and I too was working for Ritta in her burrito booth. We helped out one summer at the Oregon Country Fair. Ritta’s booth was extremely popular with a constant line out front, so we didn’t get a chance to see any of the entertainment venues or wander around looking at the various booths. We worked hard and steady all 3 days, but we didn’t mind. We were young and happy, and living in the hippest town in the Pacific Northwest.
The current Oregon Country Fair still manages to capture some of the magic of those times. We went back a few years ago. Ritta’s Burrittos was still there with the ever present crowd in front. As we stood there talking with Ritta, we heard the parade approaching long before it actually passed by. It was winding its way through the labyrinth of pathways. We waited as the drums and cymbals grew closer until at last the long procession of costumed people, musicians, jugglers, men in underpants and topless women marched and danced by. After the last “Merry Prankster” disappeared around the corner, the dusty air hung heavy with the smell of patchouli and ganja. I noticed the people on the other side of the path, mostly aging boomers like ourselves. They looked grimy, tired and dazed, probably aware that our time had passed and we had long ago outgrown flower power. But, for a few hours at the Fair, we had all been hypnotized and transported by a groovy psychedelic time warp.