TONASKET An event that started as a harvest festival for people to trade items needed for the winter and their household larders has evolved over the past 40 years into a regional event that draws thousands of people.
The Okanogan Family Faire, known over the years by a variety of names, remains most known by its first name, the barter faire.
It is under way through Sunday at 76 W. Cayuse Mountain Road.
The faire began in 1973 as a venue for folks who had items to trade.
Founder Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski, 65, said the original goal, as outlined on the event’s first poster, was to “git your winter stash of vittles.”
Over the years, the event became more of a flea market, craft fair and music festival.
“A lot of people come to party and we wish some of the partiers wouldn’t come,” he said. “There’s less emphasis on food and more on partiers.”
Originally, bartering and giving were the event’s watchwords.
Pilarski, who now lives in Hot Springs, Mont., estimated a third of the trade is by barter and the rest on a cash basis. Haggling remains strong.
“It’s a lot like a third-world market,” he said.
The Okanogan County commissioners will discuss budget reviews with the auditor and Washington State University Extension offices starting at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the commissioners’ hearing room, 123 N. Fifth Ave. At 4:30 p.m.
Despite the changes, longtime volunteer and Tonasket resident Michael “Buffalo” Mazzetti said barter remains an important form of currency. Many people post signs detailing what they have and what they need.
Mazzetti, 65, has been involved with and attending the fair since 1974.
“There are a lot of double trades,” he said. “People will see something they need and go around and trade for something that person wants in order to make the trade. It’s quite a fun thing if you go with the intent of only trading.”
He said some people try to see how far they can “trade up.” When his children were little, he said he would give each a handful of garlic bulbs and send them out to see what they could find. One bartered and traded item after item until he came back with a bicycle.
Music has always been part of the faire, but over the years the event expanded with the addition of food booths, recycling, a kitchen and other site improvements. It’s now highly organized, with traders organized onto labeled “streets,” a security force, sanitation standards and some disabled access. There’s a formal organizing committee and a website.
In the beginning, though, organizers tried to keep the event low-key and available only to a small circle of people. Organizers met at Lost Lake in August to decide on a date. Information was spread by word of mouth.
“For years, we didn’t advertise,” Mazzetti said. “We didn’t want all that many people there.”
“The first year, we didn’t announce the site until the day before,” said Pilarski, who’s been to the faire every year.
For awhile, posters were put out, but then the faire grew and organizers went back to keeping the site and the date a secret. Sometimes the site would change at the last minute, he said.
In 1995, attendance ballooned to around 3,000, partly as a side effect of the August 1995 death of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
“Last year we were the victims of Jerry Garcia’s death,” volunteer Virginia Mazzetti told Okanogan County commissioners in February 1996 as the county pondered whether to require the faire to comply with its festival ordinance.
Many so-called “Deadheads” – followers of the band – were left with nowhere to go after the band broke up following Garcia’s death.
She said many were down and out teenagers looking for something to do after coming from a vigil in Spokane the night before.
“We were the next party,” she told commissioners at the time.
“It was smaller until 1995, and then there was a big influx of people and it just ballooned out after that,” Tonasket Natural Foods Co-op Assistant Manager Julie Greenwood said.
“A lot of people who followed The Dead were looking for places to be with like-minded people,” she said.
That year, Phish had been playing in Spokane, and many of its attendees headed west when they caught wind of the barter faire. So many people