The Southwest Washington Fair may begin for the public next week, but for the Pannkuk family, it started weeks ago.

Actually, it started as soon as the school year ended for Curt and Jean Pannkuk’s kids.

“This IS our summer,” said daughter Vandee Pannkuk, 16. “Every year. Ever since I can remember.”

Curt and Jean Pannkuk have served as superintendents of the Wildlife building at the Southwest Washington Fair for about 23 years and have been involved in the building itself for about 40. Curt Pannkuk said it is the people who visit the wildlife building each year that keep him coming back. He said he loves talking with visitors and hearing their comments when they see the building.

“I like to stand (in the front of the building) and just listen to people when they come in and see it,” Curt Pannkuk said.

But the Onalaska family’s involvement in the fair, which opens for its 110th season Tuesday, extends beyond a single building. Even before they can get into the wildlife building, the Pannkuks are regulars around the fairgrounds. Curt and Jean have 18 children, ages 8-46, and 20 grandkids, all of whom get into the fair spirit. As soon as summer starts, they are usually at the fairgrounds volunteering to help the maintenance workers with everything from placing items around the fairground to painting and cleaning. And the family members said they are constantly coming up with new ideas for different things they can do or exhibit in the outdoor building, including this year’s kids contest that will expand on last year’s “find the ninja turtles” game.

“It brings us closer together,” Vandee said.

The family’s work creating the outdoor experience that is the wildlife building begins about a month before the fair. During the year, benches, hand-wash stations and other movable items used during the fair are stored in their building, so they first begin by clearing out all of those items. Then they can begin cleaning the building before returning the majority of the decorative items to the room. They pressure wash the building from floor to ceiling every year and then sweep and mop every day during the fair. They also repaint the floor of the building yearly, including using stencils to add the popular animal footprints.

“One year we decided we were not going to do the footprints and everybody came in and said ‘where’s the footprints? Where’s the footprints?’” Pannkuk recalled with a chuckle.

Their family ties to the Southwest Washington Fair actually run pretty deep. Curt Pannkuk’s late brother, Tony, who passed away three years ago, was also an active fair supporter. Curt said that his brother, an avid hunter, would always have an exhibit in the wildlife building of some of the exotic animals he had hunted. Tony’s wife, Pamela, still brings that exhibit each year.

“After my uncle died it was hard because he was such a big part of it, but now it’s like he’s still here with us,” Vandee said.

Curt Pannkuk said when he first got involved, the building actually boasted many more live animals such as deer and wolves that would be brought in by park rangers. But having those kinds of animals has become harder and harder. Now, they primarily have the live salmon from the Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery in Salkum in the indoor pond and usually a number of taxidermy animals and animal pelts for visitors to view. 

But the fish alone require quite an amount of work, first beginning with securing permission each year for 20-30 live fish and then a transport permit to get them to the fairgrounds. Pannkuk and his family maintain the pumps and filters as well as a chiller that is used to keep the water at a constant 50-52 degrees. Pannkuk said the equipment adds an extra bit of work for him but is necessary for the health of the fish.

“When I was assistant superintendent, you used to come in and by about Wednesday you knew you had fish and on Friday you really knew you had fish and by Saturday or Sunday you didn’t want to go look at the fish because it was all foamy and stuff.”

Getting the “fish tank,” as the indoor pond is called, prepped for the fish to arrive the day before the fair takes a couple weeks of work. That work usually starts with a bunch of kids in swimsuits. The Pannkuks have their kids get into the water and stir it around to agitate the dirt and debris that settles in the pond during the off-season. 

“They think they’re playing but they’re actually working,” he said with a smile.

After the tank is cleaned, it has to be filled with clean water and then the pumps are run for about a week to allow the charcoal filters to remove the chlorine that is present in tap water.

Curt Pannkuk can name every vendor in the wildlife building. He personally opens the building in the morning and closes it at night and the family can often be at the fairgrounds until the 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. making the building ready for the next day. And when the fair is on, the wildlife building is an environment where where a pot of chili is usually on, coffee and donuts are delivered every morning and everybody knows Curt’s story about the ghost that lives there. 

“They’re just super nice,” Pannkuk said of the exhibitors in the wildlife building. “Everybody just works together.”

Pannkuk said he and Jean had actually recently considered retiring from their posts after he was slow to recover from a surgery earlier in the year. But they were convinced by their kids to keep going. He said the kids promised to do all of the hard work and allow him to focus on the business side of the building. He said he doesn’t know how much longer he will be the superintendent but said he already has a few kids vying to take over the job when he retires.

“I’d like it to at least have the Pannkuk name continue to be attached to it,” he said of his hopes for the future of the department.

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The year Willie Nelson played there was a falconer who had hawks one Bald Eagle and Prairie Falcon. That was Cool!

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