VENETA, Ore. (AP) — There's a whole lot of hammering and sawing and spiffing up going on at the Oregon Country Fair site, tucked in the woods along the Long Tom River west of Veneta, in anticipation of the annual three-day, always wild-and-wacky merrymaking that begins this year on July 10.
Reviled by some for its reputation of near-naked bodies and wild after-hours parties — and revered by others for the same reasons — this year's fair has an added element of celebration: It's the 40th anniversary of the leave-your-inhibitions-at-the-gate fair's almost surreal location in Veneta, where food and craft booths blend into the trees and miles of footpaths snake through the woods with entertainment-laden stages at nearly every turn.
But the fair "is much more than a three-day event," says Marcus Hinz, its executive director since February. "I was hired to bring back into the focus the fair's philanthropic role in the community, which has existed since it began."
With the proceeds from the annual event, the Oregon Country Fair distributes as much as $50,000 annually to groups as diverse as Meals on Wheels, Cascade Wildlands and Lane Community College's Peace Center, "from touchy-feely to hard-core political," he said.
Nonetheless, the emphasis right now is on the organization's legendary over-the-top escape from reality.
Rich Heart Araujo, who has sold his beaded jewelry at the fair every one of those 40 years, has a crew of volunteers busily rebuilding his booth across the meadow from the fair's Main Stage, turning the tired old curved front into a "pirate ship" shape he plans to christen the "Ship of Fools."
"It will have an upper deck, a bow and hand-carved beams with animal heads, and it's put together with wooden pegs — $3,000 later, and $4,000 worth of give-from-the-heart labor, it's really taking on the appearance of a ship," Araujo said enthusiastically. "And it's in a place where everybody sees it. Nobody comes to the fair and doesn't walk right by here."
Besides his own jewelry, Araujo shares his booth with a crafter who makes gold and silver jewelry and also offers a space for children to sell their creations.
"My children grew up coming to the fair every year, and now my grandchildren are here — it's that way with many of the young people here," he said. "If a young person out here is 21, it's probably their 22nd year at the fair; a lot of them started coming in the womb."
Norma Sax, the fair's paid administrative assistant, dates her participation in the Oregon Country Fair to 1977. She and her husband met at the fair and also had their wedding ceremony and reception there.
"When I first came out here, I worked at the White Bird (clinic) booth," Sax recalls. "I just kind of felt at home here. Then I got involved in the 'Community Village' where the nonprofit organizations have their booths, and they all felt like family to me. I just love being around creative, artistic, intelligent people."
A few people live on higher ground to watch over the fair property year-round, but the 280-acre fair site is subject to annual flooding on the Long Tom, so nobody ever knows what condition their booth will be in when things start to dry out in spring, she said.
"We have about 50 food booths and 300 craft booths, but most of the craft booths have more than one craftsperson in them, so altogether there are about 700 or 800 of them at the fair," Sax said. "With that many, there's a lot of rebuilding that goes on every year."
Already, vendors have begun pitching their tents behind their booths — most camp on the site for the duration of the fair — and other crews have gathered to ready the communal kitchens available only to fair workers, refurbish or paint the fair's signage and make final plans for security, cleanup and communications on the fair grounds.
Katie Markley is spending her first year on the art crew.
"Our job is to make everything attractive," she said. "We're making new stuff and revamping old stuff. We're going to have a long line of 'Burma Shave' type signs with messages on them, and we'll have people called 'undercover angels' walking around, smiling and asking everyone if everything is OK."
The Oregon Country Fair caps its attendance at 18,000 every day, Sax said, and if the weather is good — not raining and not too hot — the Saturday crowds frequently hit the cap.
Araujo vividly remembers his first year at the fair, when it was much smaller and far less organized than it is now.
"I remember getting here and just flopping down in a field to sleep, and when I woke up there was this whole herd of horses just standing around me, staring at me," he said. "I said, 'I'm from New York — I don't do horses.' I got up, threw a cloth over a box, laid out my jewelry, and I was open for business."
Things are a lot more complicated now. New food vendors and craftspeople have to fill out applications and be "juried" into the fold when there's an open space. Each booth has a representative who may invite a new artist into the booth. If a booth becomes completely vacant, a crew of volunteers steps up to arrange for craftspeople to fill the void.
As representative of his booth, combined with his many years at the fair, Araujo feels a kinship with the space.
"When we started rebuilding the booth, we found that this tree was leaning onto the booth, so we propped up the branches, built around it, and when we're finished, we'll lean it back the way it was," he said. "Everyone here builds around the vegetation — that's the fair — the trees were always here.
"To me, this space is sacred," Araujo said. "I've been honored to caretake it now for 40 years."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.