A week from today, the biggest community party on Maui gets under way with a parade between University of Hawaii Maui College and the War Memorial Complex. The parade is "A Timeless Tradition," the theme of the fair this year.
A parade of marchers, horses, foliage-bedecked vehicles and excited children opened the first Maui County Fair in 1916. The big attraction at the Wells Park fairgrounds was an elephant named Daisy.
In recent years, directors of the privately financed and volunteer-run fair decided to drop the word "county" from the name to emphasize the community-based nature of the nonprofit, four-night, three-day fair. There's a long list of sponsors, all of them businesses ranging from longtime family concerns to corporations.
The 2012 edition of the fair is No. 90. Since the first one, the fair has been stopped only by war - World War I in 1917 and 1918 and World War II from 1942 to 1946.
Before Maui came of age, "The Fair" was an obsession. Businesses closed, plantations trucked in plantation families and the Kahului Railroad scheduled extra trains to bring in folks from Hamakuapoko and beyond. Interisland steamers brought in fairgoers from the other islands and even tourists from across the ocean.
In 1919, the fair was moved from Wailuku to a purpose-built fairgrounds on Puunene Avenue in Kahului. The Maui County Fair and Horse Racing Association ran the fair, digging a canal to drain swampy land leased from Alexander & Baldwin. Horses thundering around a racetrack lured high-rollers from around the islands and beyond. Sums large and small changed hands in the grandstand.
In addition to the E.K. Fernandez "Joy Zone" - a feature of the fair from the beginning - sport was a highlight. At the height of the plantation era, each Maui County Fair included as many as two dozen sports, but the big one was the annual football game played inside the racetrack between Lahainaluna and Baldwin high schools.
In 1986, there were 1,000 fair volunteers and 35 concessions. To this day, the fair is the big fundraiser for a variety of community organizations. When interviewed that year, George Ito was the fair coordinator, a job he took over in 1969 and held to the end.
Then 69 years old, Ito recalled his childhood days. "To have apples, soda and hot dogs was really something. The only time we had (them) was during the fair," he said. "I remember getting shoes to come to the fair. We went to school barefooted but our parents got us Keds shoes for the fair."
My first visit to the fair came in 1968. It was night. The dusty fairgrounds were dimly lit with bare bulbs strung overhead. Malasadas baked in a traditional Portuguese oven behind the Homemakers Building were tasty. I passed on familiar fair food and wondered about something called Flying Saucers.
Long sheds covered tables filled with fruits and vegetables and an exhibit of poultry - all interspersed with award ribbons. A stables behind the Joy Zone held glossy horses. One whole building next to the rocky parking lot housed an exhibit of Hawaiian crafts. A small hollow-tile building contained an exhibit of photographs and children's art. It was all reminiscent of county fairs I'd attended as a kid in Illinois.
In succeeding years, the fairground was diminished by fire and wind. In 1978, the grandstand burned down. In 1980, a storm destroyed the poultry building. A fire in 1984 consumed the Territorial Building, known as the Homemaker's Building during the fair and Maui Community Theater the other 11 months of the year.
The 1988 fair was the last to be held at the Kahului Fairgrounds. A&B finally took back the land for the development of apartment and commercial buildings. The Maui County Fair and Horse Racing Association studied various new locations for a permanent fairgrounds and wanted land later turned into Keopuolani Park. Negotiations with the county didn't pan out. A&B offered some 50 acres of land along Kuihelani Highway, but the infrastructure price tag was too high and the association thought it was too far away. The association gave up.
For a few months, it appeared The Maui County Fair and all its attractions would disappear. A volunteer group headed by Avery Chumbley saved the fair and got county permission to use its present location in 1989.
The Maui Fair runs Sept. 27-30. It definitely is "A Timeless Tradition." See you at the fair!
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.