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Then and now: Island County Fairgrounds Pole Building
A stimulus antidote to our nation’s Great Depression, the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded thousands of construction projects in the 1930s to get Americans working again.
One such effort was the Pole Building on the Island County Fairgrounds property in Langley. It was constructed by pioneers like Albert Melsen in 1937 using peeled logs harvested on South Whidbey and employed many locals over a two year period.
Al and Amelia Melsen came to Whidbey in 1907, purchasing 11 acres on Edgecliff Road. Al was a builder, the driving force behind construction of The Dog House, The Clyde Theatre and Langley United Methodist Church, to name just a few surviving structures. He served as Langley major for 16 years and was responsible for the city’s first efficient water system.
Island County Fair is one of the oldest in Washington State. Organizers signed bylaws in 1912, though they didn’t file for incorporation until 1923. Begun originally in Coupeville, the fair relocated to Langley in 1917. It was held at the Langley marina from 1917 to 1922, the dance pavilion there serving as an exhibit venue. The fair moved to the school grounds after Standard Oil Company purchased the marina and demolished the pavilion. The school gymnasium housed exhibits until the Pole Building could accommodate them.
Al Melsen advanced the fair association $300 in 1934 for the six-acre chicken ranch that occupied the fairgrounds’ current site. Seven more acres were eventually added. In 1935, the WPA paid for materials and local labor to build the then-largest pole structure in the U.S. The building incorporates an enormous auditorium and stage, together with several multi-purpose rooms and storage areas. Renamed for fair manager Gust Skarberg in 2001, the building also flaunts a large river rock chimney and a log chandelier.
Gustaf “Gust” Skarberg (1913-2002) was the grandson of Swedish immigrants who farmed and raised chickens once they reached Whidbey. Gust managed the county fair for nearly 50 years, beginning in the early 1960s. It was his “second life” according to his daughter, Janet Brown. Gust worked at Crown Lumber in Mukilteo and, during the 1960s, owned his own lumberyard on Bayview Road. Janet remembers that she and other school children ate their hot lunches and attended physical education classes in the Pole Building in the 1940s.
Today the August county fair features 4-H animal raisers, pie-bakers, prize quilters, carnival rides, and vintage rock bands. Out-of-towners feel like they’ve stumbled onto the set of Oklahoma, minus the box lunch auction. The Pole Building remains the largest and oldest structure in the complex. Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said, “It’s a classic example of people coming together to realize a project that benefits the entire community. Its recent addition to the Langley Register of Historic Places is the result of long effort on the part of the Island County Commission, the Island County Fair stakeholders and the Langley Historic Preservation Commission.”