Cove Cherry Fair
- Dick Mason
It is a tale of governors, poets and a killing frost. The story is treasured but mostly forgotten that of the early days of the Cove Cherry Fair.
The story is being preserved with the help of people like John VanSchoonhoven of Cove.
VanSchoonhoven and other members of the Cove Improvement Club are examining the cherry fair's early days. The fair history, like a cherry cracked by heavy rain, is split. The fair started in 1911 and ran each summer through 1917. It was then discontinued for 83 years before being revived in 2000.
The fair's first run was a heady experience for organizers. So popular was the event it sometimes drew a reported 3,000 people.
"It was one of the biggest celebrations in the valley,'' VanSchoonhoven said during a recent presentation at a meeting of the Union County Historical Society.
The event was so big that a local newspaper reported that Union was virtually vacant one weekend because so many had ventured to Cove for the cherry festival, said VanSchoonhoven .
People were drawn to the fair by guests like Joaquin Miller, a nationally known poet who lived in Northeast Oregon, and Oswald West, Oregon's governor from 1911 to 1915. West spoke at the 1913 Cove Cherry Fair, conducted July 23.
Political notables who also spoke included Walter Pierce, who would serve as governor from 1923 to 1927, and T.T. Geer, who had served as governor from 1899 to 1903.
Geer's appearances at the cherry fair were homecomings since he grew up in Cove in the 1860s and 1870s.
Geer's father, Herman, helped give rise to the cherry fair by jump-starting Cove's agricultural industry decades before the fair was initiated. Herman Geer moved to Cove in 1867 and created a nursery with many cuttings and root stock he had brought from the Willamette Valley. VanSchoonhoven noted that at one time a high percentage of Cove's fruit trees were linked to cuttings and root stock from Geer's nursery. Herman Geer lived in Cove about 34 years.
Cherry growers in Cove a century ago were so successful that they needed an outlet for sales. This was a major reason the cherry fair was started.
The fair, however, featured more than an abundance of fruit and well known speakers. The fair also had pageantry, with a royal court as its cornerstone. Each year a king and a queen were elected from the court by people who purchased the right to vote. People were given one vote for each $1 purchase they made in participating local stores, VanSchoonhoven said.
The boy crowned was known as King Bing, the girl as Queen Anne. The royal titles recognized the popular Bing and Queen Anne cherries being grown in Cove.
The popularity of the pageantry, speakers and fruit moved some people to write poems and sing songs. Following is a portion of a song sung by Ernest, Eudelle and Othella Gray at an early Cove Cherry Fair.
"Cove is the land of berries
And the place they raise the cherries,
Don't they see the wonderful display?
You can hear the autos humming.
Of the multitudes a coming,
For this is our cherry day.
In this land of milk and honey.''
Despite the fair's popularity, it came to an early demise. The fair ended after 1917 for at least three reasons, according to VanSchoonhoven:
A frost in the spring of 1918 hit as cherry orchards were blossoming, wiping out much of that year's crop.
The United States' involvement in World War I, which meant that many young men needed to help harvest cherries were overseas.
Increased railroad shipping by those raising cherries. This meant that farmers had less of a need for an annual fair where they could sell their produce.
The fair was revived in 2000 and is now conducted each August. This year's fair is set for Aug. 18. An arts festival is conducted in conjunction with the fair. This year's arts festival will be conducted Aug. 16-17.
The new edition of the Cove Cherry Fair will surpass the original in longevity this summer. This is evidence that nine decades later people still embrace the Cove Cherry Fair the way people like M.L. Carter, known as the Sandridge Poet, once did. During his presentation, VanSchoonhoven shared a poem Carter wrote about the fair, one of many she penned about Cove. Carter's poem reads in part:
"Recalling pleasant memories
That cling around the heart
To us no place is better,
Or more pleasing to the eye,
Than Cove with its big prize cherries
With its prunes and apple pie.'