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Historic ‘Purple Cow’ returns in August along with the Evergreen State Fair

There were no Lake Union fireworks last year or this year – and Seafair and Bumbershoot won’t be back in person until 2022 — but the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe is one of many similar agriculture-themed events returning this summer. But unique to the Evergreen State Fair is its mysteriously appealing signature ice cream dessert drink that’s also making a comeback.

On Thursday, Aug. 26, the second biggest fair in the state – in terms of attendance – will be “back in the saddle” in Snohomish County after skipping last year due to COVID – like pretty much every other event.

The Evergreen State Fairgrounds are in Monroe on about 200 acres along Highway 2 at the intersection of State Route 522, which is where the fair has been held since 1949. That year was a big one. Along with the new fairgrounds, what’s now Highway 2 between Snohomish and Monroe had just undergone a major upgrade, and it’s when they started calling what had been the Snohomish County Fair the “Evergreen State Fair,” in honor of Washington’s 1890s nickname.

Prior to 1949, the fair moved around a few times over the decades. It all began in Snohomish in 1874, before moving to Monroe in the early 1900s, and then shifting to Granite Falls in 1916. The fair wasn’t held for most of the 1930s and during World War II, but it started up again near downtown Monroe in 1945 with a 4-H focused event called “Cavalcade of the Valleys” that morphed back into the Snohomish County Fair in 1946.

Jeremy Husby is manager for Snohomish County of the Evergreen State Fair and the year-round fairgrounds facility which, in non-pandemic times, typically hosts hundreds of events. After deciding in mid-May 2021 to produce the fair this year, Husby and his staff have been busy for months getting ready for the vendors, the 4-H kids, the animals, and – fingers crossed – for the crowds.

Inspired by Hollywood cowboy Gene Autry’s late 1930s theme song, the forward-looking, yet retro theme for this year’s post-COVID Evergreen State Fair is “Back in the Saddle.”

“I think it was one of our planners came up with the theme and it just fit really well, ‘Back in the Saddle Again,’” Husby told KIRO Radio. “We were a year off, and now we’re back in the saddle and it kind of meshes with our community kind of country feel, and really explains how a lot of us feel.”

“We fell off the horse, and we’re going to get right back up on it, and we’re going to ride proud,” Husby said.

Husby says vendors and staff will all be wearing masks during this year’s fair, and in its open areas and well-ventilated buildings, the 2021 edition of the Evergreen State Fair will have everything you’d expect to find, including carnival rides and games, monster trucks, concerts, car races, and a demolition derby.

But that’s not all.

“Our animals course, that’s what we’re really known for is having just a really good line of animals,” Husby continued. “Our fair food. Scones. Purple Cow. Our stage and roving entertainment. We have a lumberjack show, which is really popular.”

Purple Cow?

Husby says a Purple Cow is a popular ice cream drink that’s only available at the Evergreen State Fair. The name comes from a short whimsical poem written by Gelett Burgess in 1895, and recited by schoolchildren throughout much of the 20th century.

Though he wouldn’t divulge the recipe, Husby did say Purple Cows – the drink, not the poem – are sold at a booth operated by a nonprofit group called the Snohomish County Dairy Women as a fundraiser for their “Dairy Ambassador” outreach program, and for scholarships and other projects that support dairy farms and dairy families.

The Purple Cow and its Dairy Women boosters are a reminder, if anyone needs one, that agriculture in Snohomish County is still the backbone of the Evergreen State Fair. For the past 18 years or so, the “Dairy Woman” who’s been running the booth at the fair – and the entire Purple Cow operation – has been Carrie Neff.

“A Purple Cow is a blackberry float,” Neff told KIRO Radio. “It’s blackberry ice cream, blackberry syrup, and 7-Up” – though, technically, Neff says, with Coca-Cola as a fair sponsor, the lemon-lime soda being used this year for Purple Cows is Sprite.

Isn’t all of this valuable proprietary information that should not be shared with a meddling radio historian? Especially one with a tape recorder running?

“It’s not really a secret recipe,” Neff said, chuckling, and then reconsidering for a moment. “You don’t [know which brand of] blackberry syrup [we use], but it’s not well hidden.”

Neff says that the Purple Cow debuted at the fair in 1960, and was the invention of two Snohomish County Dairy Women named Mary Lou Lane and Ellen Dodge and their respective husbands. Purple Cows are only sold during the Evergreen State Fair, as well as two car show events at the fairgrounds in May and October that the Snohomish County Dairy Women are associated with, meaning the iconic beverage is only available for purchase for 16 days each year.

Before COVID hit, the Snohomish County Dairy Women had planned to celebrate the Purple Cow’s 60th anniversary at last year’s fair. Like the Olympics underway in Tokyo, Neff says that this year is a bit of a delayed celebration of the popular drink, which sell for $5 a piece.

And just how popular is the Purple Cow?

“We have people that come every day for them,” Neff said. “We have people who say, ‘I’ve never had one, but I hear they’re really good.’ We have people that come running up saying, ‘I have to have my Purple Cow,’ and they come first thing when they get there. And there are the same people who come running up the last day of the fair saying, ‘I need one more before you’re gone.’”

For someone who may have never tasted a Purple Cow – let alone heard of one – what do they taste like?

“It sounds very sweet, but it’s actually quite refreshing,” Neff said. “Almost everybody asks what a Purple Cow is. You tell them and they kind of make a face. Most people will try it and most people will say, ‘It sounded too sweet but, wow, that really is good.’”

Then, almost as an afterthought, Neff added: “And every 13th Purple Cow is free.”

How this works is the person making the Purple Cows keeps a tally, and for every 13th drink she makes, she rings a bell, indicating that that particular Purple Cow is given out for free to whichever customer it was destined for. Neff says people sometimes even try to adjust their place in line in order to try and get a free one – something she says her son did when he was a teenager – but it’s almost impossible to predict when the 13th drink will emerge and the bell will ring.

Neff says the Snohomish County Dairy Women will sell thousands of Purple Cows over the run of the fair, depending on attendance and weather, and that she’ll be exhausted when it’s all over, as she is every year. Except, that is, for 2020.

As bad as the pandemic was for so many reasons, Carrie Neff admits that a break from Purple Cow duties last year was “like a vacation.”

With summer weather a key to vacations and to much more than just Purple Cow sales at the fair, fair manager Jeremy Husby is hoping for sunshine in late August and early September. Husby says it rained on the fair back in 2013, and that was the only year in recent memory where attendance dipped a little compared with previous years. Husby says the 2019 fair drew a record 355,000 people, and they aim to at least come close to that number this year.

But, when it comes to talking about what the weather might be like for the “Back in the Saddle” edition of the Evergreen State Fair, it seems that fair people can be, well, a little superstitious.

“We try not to even mention the word ‘rain,’” Husby said. “It’s kind of unspoken around our office that you just don’t even bring it up.”

The Evergreen State Fair begins on Thursday, Aug. 26, and runs through Labor Day – with a one-day closure in the middle of the run on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Purple Cows can be found at Booth Number 613 by the animal barns.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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