Note: all photos by David Welton, unless otherwise noted.

Nancy Thelen, a South Whidbey local since she was 10, is this year’s manager of the Whidbey Island Fair. The fair celebrates its 99th year, and runs from July 25-July 28.

Thelen’s office is located in the Island County Fair Building, one of the original structures built by the Works Progress Administration during the post-Depression years of the 1930s.

Nancy Thelen at work in the historic Island County Fair Building, originally built in the 1930s

Carol Coble, who served as fair manager from 2015 until this spring, said: “I would say that she is a welcome addition to the fair organization! Nancy has lots of good ideas. One of her good ideas was for her to hire me to help her…haha!!  She and I have been friends a very long time, and I absolutely love having her as a boss.”

Outgoing Fair Manager Carol Coble, who ran the fair from 2015 to 2024, passed the torch this year to her friend Nancy Thelen

With the guidance of her mentor, Thelen dove in to get this year’s fair up and running. There will be some new events and vendors at the Whidbey Island Fair, in addition to favorites from past years.

New are Craig Wilder’s black and white draft horses. The Ferndale-based owner of the noble animals won a “Best groomed and decorated” award at the Northwest Washington Fair last May. Wilder’s horses will be shown at the barn each day of the fair.  Parade Grand Marshall Albert Gabelein will ride one of Wilder’s steeds in the annual fair parade Saturday, July 27, at 10 AM.

Craig Wilder and his draft horses from a 2022 Facebook page photo

Also new is a Friday rodeo at 6 PM hosted by a young woman, Anne Madsen, a professional rodeo competitor, who grew up on South Whidbey, and now hosts roping clinics throughout the year. Get to know Anne by visiting her Facebook page, A&J Western Riding.

Anne Madsen, a women’s professional rodeo competitor, brings rodeo to the Whidbey Island Fair for the first time in many years. She plans to revive rodeo on Whidbey Island. Here she ropes a calf dummy at a roping demonstration last year at the fair. Photo shared by Anne Madsen.

Look for a new food vendor who will be selling deep fried Twinkies™, Snickers™, Oreos™, Pop Tarts™, fruit, and butter.

“I tried deep-fried butter at the Pulyallup State Fair,” Thelen said. “It tasted like buttered toast… delicious.”

Embedded in islander’s summer memories, visitors attend the annual fair parade, visit 4-H animal exhibits, logging contests, flower exhibits, fiber arts, baked goods, beer and wine entries, art, food vendors, entertainers, and rides. The yearly celebration, which lasts four days, may appear to be a seamless event to the more than 20,000 visitors who attend, yet it is thanks to the fair manager and her team that the fair runs as smoothly as it does.

Fair Manager Nancy Thelen with one of the fair building murals

Besides coordinating fair exhibits, vendors and entertainment, the fair manager also arranges for security, emergency medical technicians, ticket takers, sound men, teen clean up volunteers, special volunteers for the Fiddle Faddle Farm, exhibit superintendents and judges.

Madam Fair Manager Nancy Thelen–a new post for her this year

When we chatted at her office June 27, Thelen said, “I’m getting stuff done, man. Got a couple of volunteers, young gentleman, doing cleanup, painting, and pressure washing.”

Locals may know Thelen from her days working at Payless Foods while her daughter Alissa, now 30, and son, Cameron, now 29, were young. Actively engaged in past activities, such as Falcon Football, booster clubs and the PTA, Thelan said she’s always loved organizing and managing.

Fair Manager Nancy Thelen at one of the fair buildings

After her kids were grown, Thelen earned an AA in event planning. She stopped working at Payless Foods after the COVID pandemic, retiring after 32 years. Thelan also has worked at her husband Jim Thelen’s construction company since 2000. After retiring from Payless, Thelen looked around for additional work that would provide greater interaction with people.

Carol Coble, the previous fair manager, told her friend she was going to retire in 2024.

“Carol said she was leaving and had someone in mind,” Thelen recalled. “She said I was the person she had in mind!”

This year’s Fair Manager Nancy Thelen

Thelen began attending meetings to observe what it takes to put on the fair. She had previous experience as a 4-H leader for dog and horse clubs, and was enrolled in 4-H herself while growing up.

“I’ve been around the fair forty-plus years,” Thelen said. “I really love the fair. When I was hired, they said this is a part time job. Seventy-five percent of the year it’s part-time. This time of year it’s more than full-time.”

Recalling the days when she boarded her horse at the fairgrounds for 4-H events, Thelen would go home at the end of the day, and wake up in the wee hours to return to the fairgrounds, feed her horse and clean its stall. Later as a 4-H leader, she and her clubs would camp at the fairgrounds over the course of six days.

Entry to Whidbey Island Fair this year July 25-28. This is the fair’s 99th year of celebrating local life.

“You roll out of the trailer, feed the horse, take the dogs for a walk, and do not worry about leaving your animals like we did in the past,” Thelen said. “My husband asked the other day, ‘Will you survive the long week as a fair manager?’ I said I’ve already survived. Fortunately we also live close by, so I can run home if I need to.”

For more information, contact Nancy Thelen, fair manager at: 360-221-4677. Email: staff@whidbeyislandfair.com.

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