Barter Fair Bounty

"The Third Annual Northeast Washington Barter Fair will provide a way for us to sell or trade the products we've grown or made without having to resort to the conventional market system." So said the leaflet promoting the event, which took place in 1976.

| May/June 1980

  • 063 barter fair - campground, bargaining2
    LEFT: Campers and tents at the barter fair campground. RIGHT: An old codger proposes a trade.
  • 063 barter fair - apples, music, gems
    TOP LEFT: An impromptu musical performance on flute and drums. TOP RIGHT: A vendor displays gems and polished rock on velvet. BOTTOM: A vendor with apples and chickens to swap.
  • 063 barter fair - tables, quilt, llama
    TOP: Barter fair attendees milling amongst the vendor tables. BOTTOM LEFT: A live llama. BOTTOM RIGHT: A bright quilt.

  • 063 barter fair - campground, bargaining2
  • 063 barter fair - apples, music, gems
  • 063 barter fair - tables, quilt, llama

"The Third Annual Northeast Washington Barter Fair," the leaflet noted, "will provide a way for us to sell or trade the products we've grown or made . . . without having to resort to the conventional market system, in which producers are too often cheated."

This unusual event (the news sheet went on to say) first took place back in 1974, when someone offered an unused field as a "fairground" and less than 100 people showed up to swap. The next year, the barter festival drew 300 traders, and — by the time my husband George and I read the handout describing the 1976 affair — at least 500 people were expected to attend!

It sounded great to us, so though we were still "city people," we blended gallons of old-fashioned potpourri, packed up some fancy sachets and spice necklaces I'd made, and set off for our first two-day swapping meet . . . which took place just outside Tonasket in northeastern Washington. (The fair's location is changed from one year to the next, to insure that the same people don't always have to drive a long distance to the event.)

An Alternative to Agribiz

Even without the prominently displayed "Barter Fair" sign, no one could have failed to recognize the festival site. Bouncing down the dirt road in front of us was a pickup truck piled high with potatoes, tomatoes, and melons. Ahead of that vehicle was a VW bug bulging at the seams with pumpkins and squash. And in the distance — stretched across a privately owned, flat, 10-acre field — was a kaleidoscope of cars, trucks, tents, tipis, and (most of all) people . . . not the 500 that had been anticipated, but at least 2,000!

There were, we soon learned, no entrance formalities or fees. The field was partitioned with signs and colored flags to indicate parking areas for both daytime and overnight visitors . . . and the only reference to money was a donation box which was labeled, "If this fair has helped you, please help us cover costs . . . thank you."

Coming closer, we looked down upon an array of stalls, vehicles, and people that had all the color and life of a Middle Eastern bazaar. Soon we were in the thick of it! Some folks had set up tables or elaborate stalls, while others displayed their goods on cloths spread on the ground. Trucks, vans, station wagons, and all sorts of unconventional homes-on-wheels were parked on either side of the row, loaded with everything from sweet corn to split cordwood . . . from used books to goats . . . and from soup to nuts.

We passed a group of people pressing fresh apple cider with an old-fashioned handcrank press . . . a woman giving haircuts . . . a couple popping corn over a kerosene stove . . . another pair giving double massages to blissful customers . . . a man making tools at his portable smithy . . . a performing bluegrass band . . . a dairy commune offering creamy yogurt from 50-gallon tubs or hefty chunks of homemade cheese on buns . . . and a man wearing a sign that read, "Free Hugs".

The variety and quality of farm produce was equally fantastic . . . including fresh-picked organic corn, tomatoes, peppers, melons, pears, plums, beets, potatoes, beans, broccoli, mushrooms, Washington apples, a dozen varieties of squash, and much more! Local food co-ops were there, too . . . trading oil, milled grains, spices, granola, and other staples. It was a real celebration of nature's bounty . . . a time to renew old friendships and make new ones . . . a final gathering before settling in for the winter.

More to It Than Barter

"Well, what am I waitin' for?" I thought, and draped a bright cloth over our card table to display my wares on. The first customer arrived almost instantly . . . a nine-year-old boy who offered a half-wilted bouquet of wildflowers for a spice necklace. (It didn't take long for me to find out that there was much more to the barter business than straight hard-nosed trading!)

As the day went by, I watched as people talked, made offers, and tried to assign a fair value to their goods. I saw 1,001 variations — mostly lighthearted — on the age-old art of barter: making an acquaintance, shooting the breeze, matching wits, and striking a bargain. Here are some sample conversations:

"What do you want for that parrot?" asked one old fellow.

"What've you got?" was the answer.

"Only my mother-in-law and a cold."   

"Okay, I'll take the cold. I could do with a week off work."

Sometime later, a young man walked around the barter circle, with a two-man crosscut saw swinging from his shoulders.

"Hey, what'll you trade for your saw?" a man with goats called.

"What'll you offer?"

"I'll give you a goat."

"Fine," said the youth. Then, turning to a friend, he added, "What am I doing? I don't even have a place to live!

"I also heard a woman ask the price of dried Indian corn . . . saying she'd pay in cash.

"Don't you have anything to barter?" the corn vendor questioned. She shook her head, and he reluctantly set a price of 10¢ an ear.

Some people flat refused to take money at all, but at the other extreme there were a few who accepted only money. Yet despite the small element of commercialism that crept in with the large crowd, the entire affair was dominated by a spirit of mutual understanding and support, old-fashioned good neighborliness, and yes, even love.

A New Way to Relate

In the midst of all the dickering, I didn't find it easy to assign a value to my necklaces and potpourri. I really had to think about my habitual attitudes toward money and "business" and how they relate to dealings with people. Some folks had just cash to offer and I didn't want to refuse them, so in the end I used the wholesale price of my products as a guide . . . but only as a guide.

After all, there was no one to say that I couldn't accept a wilted bouquet, a glass of cider, or a little girl's kiss for something that usually brought me $3.50 . . . I could even give the item away if I felt like doing so.

Of course, the fair included a whole lot of goin's on besides barterin'. There was a children's parade and puppet show, the chance to try a cleansing sweat bath in an Indian-style lodge, a community meeting to discuss plans for a regional co-op warehouse, electioneering for political candidates, music-making, chanting, Sufi dancing, and lots of cooking!

That year the barter fair featured communal meals served in shifts. And cooking for 2,000 people is no snap . . . even with four wood stoves, charcoal pits, an array of huge pots and pans, a few dozen willing workers, and a pack mule that made the rounds of the barter circle and hauled away food items donated to the community kitchen.

When evening rolled around, most traders put their goods away to socialize, make music, dance, or just sit around the campfire and enjoy themselves.

Dozens of "Successful Swaps"

What did people trade for my modest supply of goods? After two days, the "harvest" included an amazing quantity and variety of items: canned goods, seashells, an antique pulley wheel, gemstones, glass gallon jars, an original handwritten story, homemade soap, milk, honey, and Indian corn ... plus enough money to pay for our trip and enough fresh and dried fruits, vegetables, herbs, and grains to see us well into winter. In fact, our old station wagon was so loaded down that we barely made it back over the pass toward home!

It's hard to say just what my best swap was, though. Perhaps it was a trade of one spice necklace for 40 pounds of butternut squash . . . or maybe it was the little girl's kiss that another piece of jewelry "bought" me.

In all honesty, however, as contented as we were with the bounty from our first barter fair, the feelings and memories we took home were far more important than any worldly goods. The pleasure that people showed in the things I'd made gave me a deeper satisfaction than money could.

Best of all were the many fine people who shared much more than barter items with us. For one thing, those folks recharged our resolve to break out of our rut and join "them that's doin' "!

Heidi Hunt_2
7/3/2007 1:30:56 PM

Here is a Web site of Barter Fairs. Also, check out the other fair links on the left side of the following site:

7/3/2007 1:21:02 PM

Thanks for all the info Please can you tell us the locations of the Barter Faires and when??????

3/20/2007 12:45:44 PM

hello, my name is alexis and i loved this article!! yay for washington peoples and barter fairs!! i just need a bit o help. im not so good at finding where they are and when. but im poenminded to any polace anytime. and i want to get a list going for fairs all around the year. so i was wondering if you could help me find some useful sites to show fairs or recommend some fqairs or anything of that nature. thanks a bunch! have a merry day, alexis

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