Larry Smith and the Clackamas County Fair go back a long way — half a century, in fact.
"I have decided to celebrate 50 years with a bang and have pre-entered about 75 exhibits in the floral department and around the same number in agriculture," he said.
The fair opens Tuesday, Aug. 15, and runs through Aug. 19 at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in Canby.
Last week's extreme temperatures saw Smith getting up at 4:30 a.m. in order to water his extensive flower and vegetable gardens. The hot weather knocked him back a bit, but, as he said, he perseveres.
"After doing this for 50 years, it has become an ingrained habit, and I tend to be hard to discourage," the Portland resident said.
Smith first entered the Clackamas County Fair as a 10-year-old in 1967. His grandparents had moved to Canby a few years before and were growing a garden, and he helped care for it when he stayed with them on weekends in the summer.
"My grandmother, Lydia Smith, was a competitive soul; she suggested that we enter some of the vegetables in the fair under L. Smith and share the credit for any success," he said.
The pair entered five items that year, winning awards in four of the agriculture categories.
"I still have the ribbons. There was no junior division when I was young, so I competed in open class," Smith said.
His first King of the Fair award came in 1974, right after he graduated from high school. This award was given to whoever scored the top points for all male competitors.
Smith was king a total of 16 times, retiring from that competition in 2001. The contest requires entrants to participate in multiple departments to gain extra points, and he is relieved to no longer enter the cooking and sewing competitions.
He still enters the Champion Gardener and Floral Department Sweepstakes competitions every year and has been a perennial winner, but notes there are some good new exhibitors who are closing the gap.
"My grandmothers on both sides were instrumental in stoking my interest in the competitions and supporting me during the early years, so continuing to participate is a way of honoring their memory," Smith said.
Smith said his early motivation was in learning to compete with adult exhibitors.
"One of them, Clive Cook, was in his 70s and a retired agricultural agent with the OSU Extension service. He grew perfect fruit and vegetables and was very difficult to beat," Smith said.
Cook's attitude was that any challengers had to work extra hard in order to beat him.
"I spent the entire year plotting strategies of how to beat Old Man Cook, as he was known. I finally beat him for King of the Fair in 1982, but never did triumph over him in the Champion Gardener competition," Smith said.
Things come full circle, he added, noting that his current competitors now think of him as their Old Man Cook.
"I work long and painstaking hours to do the best I can, but the difference is that I will share my gardening and exhibiting secrets with my competitors so the entire display will be tip-top," Smith said.
He described himself as "a bit compulsive," noting that he screens his rocky soil down to 12 inches every year before planting carrots, "so I can get smooth, straight, blue-ribbon roots."
Clues to a good display
Among Smith's 75 floral entries will be dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos and more. Flowers at the county fair are displayed singly in clear vases, Smith said.
As for the agriculture displays, this is "a vegetable beauty contest, so you want to make the exhibit as attractive as possible to catch the judge's eye."
Judges look for uniformity in size, shape and color, along with freshness, appropriate market size and cleanliness.
"If the specimens aren't completely uniform, sometimes you can arrange them for show in a way that can somewhat hide the variations," Smith said.
He advises potential competitors to enter the fair, adding that most people who do enter find that they win more ribbons than they thought they would and sometimes win cash prizes.
"Don't just say 'I have better tomatoes than that at home.' Make the effort to bring them in for judging," Smith said.
Clackamas his favorite fair
Smith shows at other fairs in the area, but says the Clackamas County Fair maintains a "traditional" feel.
"Some of the other fairs have tried to update their programs to compete with modern entertainment venues but have missed the mark," he said.
"While the Clackamas County Fair has worked on continuous quality improvement, it still feels in many ways like the same fair I first entered vegetables in back in 1967," Smith said.
"I have been doing this for 50 years continuously without missing even one year. I like to support fairs and keep them going strong so they won't fade away as a thing of the past," he said.
"I won't be able to do this forever, and it's time for others to step up to the plate. If anyone is interested, I will gladly share my secrets and when they beat me, I will cheer them on."
Smith added, "Maybe after 50 years I should think about retiring from all this, but I love the Clackamas County Fair and would miss working with the people who work hard to make it a success."
Five days of fun
What: The Clackamas County Fair and Rodeo
When: Aug. 15-19
Where: Clackamas County Fairgrounds, 694 N.E. Fourth Ave., Canby
Online: Visit Clackamas.us/fair to see a complete schedule
More: Larry Smith is the president of the Portland Dahlia Society, which is hosting the Pacific N.W. Regional Show, noon-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27, at the Oaks Park Dance Pavilion. Free admission and free parking.