What started as an argument over a roughly 100-year-old barn, has become a mission to sustain the San Juan County Fairgrounds.
“I really appreciate this debate, even though it was contentious at times,” said Sandy Strehlou, a main opponent of demolishing the fairgrounds horse barn last spring. “It really put a spotlight on the fairgrounds and what we need to do to save it.”
The fairgrounds horse barn was partially torn down in May 2017 to build a new facility to be a horse stable, as well as year-round event rental, said Dona Wuthnow, San Juan County Parks, Recreation and Fair director. This facility, she said, will generate more revenue for the fairgrounds and be safer for horses and riders.
According to reports provided by the auditor’s office, the fairground’s operating expenses have been, on average, about $10,000 to $20,000 higher than its annual revenue over the last five years.
That’s common, said San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley. County departments like the fairgrounds and parks don’t always break even, she said, but are “valued by the community,” and therefore supported by local and state funds.
The annual county fair generates 47 percent of the fairgrounds’ revenue, according to Wuthnow. The next highest source of revenue, at 15 percent, comes from renting out fairgrounds’ buildings, as well as RV and group camping spaces. State and local funds comprise the rest.
The fairgrounds’ only debt, which is a loan on a back, four-acre parcel, will be paid off this year.
As expenses — like staff and utilities — increases, said Wuthnow, new sources of revenue are needed. The horse barn, she added, was one of four buildings on the fairgrounds that wasn’t used, year-round.
That’s why, last spring, mobile stalls were purchased with a state grant, which also paid to raze part of the barn. When the new barn isn’t housing horses for an average of 12 nights a year, said Wuthnow, the stalls can be removed and facility rented.
“Our vision is to sustain the traditional fair and be a facility the community needs for events and other activities,” she said.
Theater groups like Island Stage Left have used the fairground’s Marie Boe building to perform plays. Service groups like the San Juan Lions Club have held fundraisers in the main fairgrounds building.
This year, horses will be housed using the mobile stalls in a rented, 80-foot-by-100-foot tent until another structure is built for next year’s fair.
The tent’s openness said horse superintendent Lorena Stankevich, will allow 4-H members from different islands to unite under one shelter. While the fair serves as a rare unifier in a county separated by water, traditionally, equestrian participants have been divided by the barn’s small quarters.
“I hope this builds friendships on other islands,” said Stankevich, of Orcas. “This summer will really set the tone for future fairs.”
Removing the barn was part of the San Juan County Fairgrounds Master Plan since 2012, said Wuthnow, but some islanders, like Strehlou, didn’t hear about the plans until a few weeks before deconstruction. This sparked an online campaign to save the barn and a discussion during the public comment section of a county council meeting.
The deconstruction was halted for about a month, when an islander filed a petition with the county. During this time, local historian Boyd Pratt studied the barn to determine which of its four separately constructed sections was the oldest.
A 60-square-foot section with cobblestone flooring was saved. It will be used to memorialize the barn and also serve as a tack room at this year’s fair. A tack room holds horse equipment like saddles.
According to Pratt, the oldest section was likely built when the fairgrounds was established in 1924. Before that, the fair was held near what is now San Juan Island’s ferry landing.
There is little information on the barn at the San Juan Historical Museum, said Pratt. Islanders hold most of the history.
Donna Tegnell of Friday Harbor remembers sleeping overnight in the barn with her Thoroughbred Sunny Boy during 1970s fairs. Emily Geyman, of Friday Harbor, remembers stalling her horse in the south end of the barn during the late 80s’ fairs as part of a group of equestrians in their 40s called the “over the hill gang.”
It’s anecdotes like these that islanders, such as Pratt and Strehlou, want to preserve at the fairgrounds. Both are founding members of the local non-profit 100 Friends of Old Island Barns.
“This has opened the door to a broader range of people to say, ‘what does it mean to say a building is historic?’” said Strehlou. “I always say historic preservation isn’t about pretty buildings, it’s about history and a site’s relationship with the community.”
To preserve this relationship, members of 100 Friends of Old Island Barns will collect photos and stories about the barn, next to the remaining section, at this year’s fair. There will also be a barn history display, using some of the salvaged wood from the razed sections.
The San Juan County Fair Board is working on a similar historical project, according to chairwoman Jennifer Rigg. She hopes to collect county-wide historical information on each of the fairgrounds’ buildings. At this year’s fair, from Aug. 16 to 19, she will display signs depicting county fowl history near the poultry barn.
For the new horse barn, Strehlou would like to see the same architectural characteristics used as the original. This, she said, would create a unifying look, reminiscent of the University of Washington architect’s initial 1924 plans. In contrast, the parks, recreation and fair staff presented a conceptual design of a metal structure to the county council, last year.
But plans aren’t set yet.
Islanders can voice opinions about the new horse barn, as well as the fairgrounds as a whole, during the master plan update in October, said Wuthnow. A consultant will also be hired to determine the fairgrounds’ needs and cost to sustain them.
Islanders like Geyman are preparing for this future.
“That barn has a place in my heart,” she said. “But I guess some things just have to change.”