A slice of local life -- Fairgrounds are a year-round joy for Clara Rice

Clara Rice stands before the Community Building, a busy place at fair, and throughout the year.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
Clara Rice stands before the Community Building, a busy place at fair, and throughout the year.

Clara Rice, Hood River County Fair manager, is retired.

Well, sort of. She retired from Sprint in 1994, but quickly became bored. So when the fair manager position opened up two years later, she decided to apply.

“It was the first interview for a job I’d had in 35 years,” she remembered. “It was interesting.”

Rice has been fair manager since October 1996, and, with the fair board and maintenance crew, has worked hard to expand the use of the grounds and, therefore, the revenue coming in. People often believe that the fairgrounds are funded by the county, said Rice, but they are not.

“Even though we receive tremendous support from the county, we don’t receive any funding,” she said. For the most part — they do receive some state funding every year — the fairgrounds are self-sufficient. Rental and usage fees keep the fairgrounds running.

“I have a great board that I work with,” Rice said. “Everyone is very supportive and wants to see things happen. I have been very fortunate because we’ve all gotten along very well in all the years I’ve been here. It’s a mighty plus.”

Rice and the fair board now have a variety of activities that run almost year-round. There are big events — the Blossom Craft Show in April, the Hood River County Fair in July, the Gorge Fruit and Craft Fair in October and the Last Chance Christmas Bazaar in December — as well as smaller ones, such as the groups who rent the grounds for RV camping or the Community Building for parties or meetings.

Vehicle storage in the Floral and Summit buildings during the winter months bring in revenue during the off-season.

And there have been many changes to the grounds and buildings themselves in Rice’s tenure. With help from Hood River Electric Co-op, the electric has been replaced in all the buildings, and added to the grounds for RV hook-ups. All buildings are now handicapped-accessible, roadways and parking areas have been paved and water and irrigation have been added.

She gives credit to the maintenance crew for keeping the fairgrounds looking nice and running smoothly.

“The grounds wouldn’t work without them,” she said. “They take a lot of pride in the grounds and the way they look.” She has a crew of three year-round employees, but during fair, the number increases to nearly 20, including grounds and office staff.

The only time the fairgrounds are closed is during the Christmas holidays, for cleanup and repair. “And then we start up with rentals again at the end of January until the next December,” said Rice.

As the fairgrounds have grown, so has the quality of the musical acts she’s been able to book for the Hood River County Fair.

“We’ve been very fortunate and we’ve been able to get some good entertainment,” she said. One stroke of luck was booking country musician Josh Turner a few years ago, two days before he hit the big time. “There’s not enough money in the county to afford him now,” she laughed.

They’ve been able to bring in larger acts because of neighbors Richard and Lorraine McCurdy. “They have 10 acres on the other side of the school they let us use for overflow parking at the fair. And without that, we wouldn’t be able to have the entertainment that we do.”

Originally from Mansfield, Ohio, Rice moved to Hood River in 1979 with the telephone company. She’s stayed in the valley because of the beautiful surroundings and because she has built a lot of close friendships.

“The people here have always been so friendly and open,” she said. “Everyone seems to be a part of a family.”

Rice is enjoying her “retirement.” Because hers is a part-time position and she has Tuesdays and Thursdays off, she has plenty of time to play golf — once a week at each of the local courses.

“You can’t get much better than that,” she laughed. “Those are premium hours,” she said.

“This is my 17th year, and I’ve really, thoroughly enjoyed working with the people and the board. That’s why I’m still here.”

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