PALMER — The 2019 Alaska State Fair has come to an end and vendors across the Alaska State Fairgrounds had one last hoorah on Monday. It was one last chance for fairgoers try a new food stand or buy that Alpaca sweater they’ve had eye on since the beginning of season.
Several booths ran last-day sales to clear their inventory while others kept chugging along like business as usual.
Michael Hiraman Reynolds busily attended to customers inside one of his Woolies stands, answering questions and ringing people up. His silver hair swayed in the wind, going multiple directions. His warm, incessant smile never seemed to leave as he went from one person to the next.
Woolies is one of the longest standing vendors at the fairgrounds, clocking in 41 years this year. Fair staff awarded the booth with a green ribbon. It said “40+ years” in gold letters. It was posted at the entrance on top of a sign that said, “The big Woolies everything sale on now!”
Reynolds said that he stopped doing last-day sales about four or five years ago, opting to offer sales right from the start. He said this ensures people won’t feel ripped off for spending $10 more on the same sweater their friend bought. He it works better this way and he plans to keep this model moving forward.
Reynolds has a second Woolies stand down the trail, near the Borealis Theatre. He lives in Washington and vending at the state Alaska State Fair is an annual tradition and road trip he looks forward to each year. He hits the Haines state fair before making his way back to the fairgrounds.
He still drives up the Alaska Highway every year, stocked with boxes full of exotic sweaters ethically obtained by artists around the world. He said that he uses fair trade practices with the artisans who craft sweaters with natural materials and set their own prices. His products come from South American and Asian countries like Peru and Thailand. He has strict no synthetic fiber and no China rules.
He enjoys Alaska and he’s grown rather fond of the Mat-Su Valley. He used to have a store in Anchorage. He said that he’s considering a summer shop in Talkeetna in the future so he can spend more time up here like he used to.
“That Matanuska Valley is beautiful… I think it’s so fantastically beautiful,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said the Valley has gotten a lot busier over the years but there’s still a small town feel going around, especially in places like Palmer. He noted that it seemed like Palmer is retaining more of its young people than it used to.
“Palmer has still kept a nice flavor to it. I like the small town flavor of Palmer and also that it’s kinda got a lot of new energy come in too. It’s just a different place than it used to be. At the same time, it still has that nice rural feel too,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds has travelled across the globe. When he was younger, taking his Woolies booth from fair to fair was how he got around, meeting all kinds of people along the way. He got married and slowed down his fair appearances as he settled into his Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy practice in Washington.
“I’ve had a lot of adventures…I really like my life,” Reynolds said.
There are numerous “super loyal” customers who come through Reynolds’ booth each year. He said a lot of people like to buy gifts at the fair and many people do their Christmas shopping there as well.
The fair provides a seasonal chance to buy exotic, unique and handmade items not available other times of the year. He said the sheer diversity of booths and attendees made the Palmer fair unique compared to other state fairs.
“I think this is a rare state fair in a way… It’s kind of like Christmas,” Reynolds said.
Jubilee Mole-Brown is 14 years old and this year marks her transition into the workforce, thanks to Woolies. This is her first job. She said that she grew up around the stand as a close family friend, essentially getting groomed for the position since she was eight.
“It’s like my first job and I’m really excited,” Mole-Brown said.
The Alaska State Fair provides plenty of opportunities to locals and visitors alike. This is where many teenagers growing up in the Valley get their first job. Mole-Brown said it’s a great way to gain work experience inside a supportive atmosphere.
“Because people are here to like, help you,” Mole-Brown said.
Buffy Meyer is the co-owner of Fish On! Camp Grill in the Gathering Place. She has basically come full circle at the fair. She said she got her first job when she was 14 years old. She worked at the Midway rides and Bread Bowel food stand. She said her former boss from the Bread Bowel approached her one year to congratulate her on her successful booth, which has garnered a lot of attention around the state.
“We love sharing our food,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s fresh Alaskan seafood grill was one of the first stands erected at the relatively new Gathering Place area. The Gathering Place was established in 2014 to celebrate and promote Alaska Native culture and products.
Meyer’s Inupiat heritage is on full display each day at the fair. Her seafood comes from Alaskan Native fishermen. She engages in several kinds of cooking demonstration throughout the season. Her grandmother also performs filet demonstrations using ulu knives.
“I think it’s great to be part of this whole cultural Gathering Place,” Meyer said.
Meyer has another booth just a few yards away called Inupiat Charms Designs by Buffy. Buffy’s friend Sheila Ezelle sat at her nearby booth, selling handcrafted parkas. Ezelle took over her grandmother’s business Laura Wright Alaskan Parkys based out of Anchorage.
She said the Gathering Place is a wonderful asset to Alaska Native culture, exposing the public to their culture and works each year.
“You do get to meet interesting people and have great conversations. This area, the Gathering Place is truly a wonderful opportunity for the native people to showcase their products and I’m really glad that people are discovering us over here,” Meyer said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com