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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow From Roosevelt to Dan Seals

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From Roosevelt to Dan Seals

Here is a question which might stump even a Trivial Pursuit champion.

What do President Theodore Roosevelt, late country music stars Dan Seals and Freddy Fender and the 1960s pop music group The Tokens have in common?

The celebrities are part of the Union County Fair’s star-studded legacy. All have been headliners at the Union County Fair over the past century.

Recite the list of the fair’s celebrity cast to anyone and the name that draws the most attention is that of Roosevelt. 

“Roosevelt? Wow!,” wrote this year’s headline performer, singer Nicole Lewis of Spokane in an email. 

Lewis and her band will perform today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. 

Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, spoke at the Union County Fair on Sept. 11, 1912, while campaigning for another term as president. Roosevelt was then running as the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate. 

A crowd of 6,000 to 7,000 people, many of whom donned red bandanas like the one Roosevelt often wore, attended Roosevelt’s address, according to a story in the Sept. 12, 1912, Observer. 

Roosevelt touched on many issues of the day during his talk, including women’s right to vote. He said that women deserved the right to vote due to the sacrifices they make as mothers.

“Because of the colossal function of motherhood, (women) should enjoy the privilege of voting the same as a man,” Roosevelt said eight years before the 19th Amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote, was ratified.

An apple from the Grande Ronde Valley was presented to Roosevelt during his appearance. He pocketed it for “future reference.” 

Roosevelt spoke for an hour and then left by train for another campaign appearance. 

Admission was charged for the fair the day Roosevelt spoke, sparking controversy. The Observer reported that many people thought the fair should not have charged admission the day the former president spoke. Admission to the fair that day was 50 cents, the same as it had been throughout its 1912 run.

Fair officials argued that the money was needed to cover the expense of bringing in the ex-president. Roosevelt lost his bid for reelection two months later, finishing third in the national election to Woodrow Wilson and incumbent William Howard Taft.

Roosevelt is without question the best known celebrity to appear at the Union County Fair. Who was the most accomplished entertainer to perform? That is debatable but many might argue that it was Dan Seals. 

The country star performed at the fair the evening of July 31, 1998. He drew such a large crowd that the parking areas were filled to capacity and many people had to walk several blocks to reach the fair. 

Seals, who died in 2009 at age 61, had many songs that made it to spots on the country music charts including “Bop” and “Addicted.”

He was formerly known as England Dan of the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. The duo’s hits included numbers such as “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” which made it to No. 2 on the on the Billboard charts in 1976.

Freddy Fender, who like Seals had his biggest hits in the 1970s, played at the Union County Fair on Aug. 3, 1984. Fender, who died in 2006 at the age of 69, is best remembered for the smash hits “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.’’ Both sold more than 1 million copies. 

Fender gave two performances at the fair, drawing 250 people in an afternoon show and a capacity crowd of 500 in the evening, according to a story in the Aug. 6, 1984, Observer.

Of all the performers to have played at the Union County Fair, none probably had a more popular song to its name than The Tokens, which will forever be known for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The song made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1961. The record was eventually purchased by more than 12 million people. 

The Tokens, represented by brothers Phil and Mitch Margo, then the two remaining members of the group, played at the fair on Aug. 1, 1992. They said that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was so lightly regarded by their record company, RCA, that it placed it on the B side of a single. RCA intended to promote only the A side song, “Tina.”

Not all of the celebrities who have come to the Union County Fair have come to perform. Movie star Jeff Chandler visited the fair in 1955 simply to take in its entertainment. Chandler was in La Grande taking a break from the filming of the western “Pillars of the Sky,” according to a September 1955 Observer article.

Most of “Pillars of the Sky’’ was shot in the area several miles south of where Hilgard State Park is today. The movie was released in 1956.

Chandler was one of Universal International’s most popular actors in the 1950s. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1951 for his role in the 1950 movie “Broken Arrow.’’ 

Chandler did not perform at the Union County Fair, but nationally known celebrities who have undoubtedly boosted attendance. However, the impact celebrities have on attendance may not be as great as some might think, though, especially in recent years. 

“It seems like we draw bigger crowds with more local entertainers,” Union County Fair Manager Nan Bigej said.

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