It has its roots in melon rolling, ‘kiddie kapers’ and draft horse pulling. It has served its community in light and dark, as the host of a fledgling university—and an assembly center for dispossessed Japanese American citizens. It embraces guests through its iconic river rock gate—and packs shrieking fans in its arena for its ‘metal mayhem’ demolition derbies. It’s the Stanislaus County Fair and this year, its 109thedition, is the perfect time to take stock of its history and prepare for its big 110thbirthday in 2021. “It will be a whole new decade, and a good time to see where the fair has been, how we started, and where we’re going,” says Adrenna B. Alkhas, the fair’s Marketing and Communication Director.
On paper, a 19thcentury enterprise thriving in 21stcentury cutting-edge California might seem improbable. Yet the idea of the county fair was always based on showcasing the best of today and educating visitors on the brightest of tomorrow. Season it with a dash of entertainment and a whole lot of great food and you have a potent mix with enduring appeal. Arcadia Publishing’s ‘American Traditions:
A Short History of Agricultural Fairs’ says, ‘[for families that lived far from the city,] the annual fair was an update on modern science, as it was often the first time new technologies [like electricity and airplanes] had been made available to them…entertainment acts also came to the forefront…[F]airs became a time not only for educating the public on agriculture and for various competitions, but also a time for farmers to educate themselves on technology and the burgeoning American culture.’
Fairs are also huge economic drivers for the county, both for businesses and nonprofits. Alkhas points out both the American Legion and the Turlock Lions Club raise the majority of their annual budget through their concessions at the fair, while other philanthropies raise significant support during the fair. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s 2003 report, ‘Fairs: Exploring a California Gold Mine,’ uses the Stanislaus County Fair as a case study of the fair’s powerful benefit on local philanthropies and the community.
Stanislaus County Annual Fair—A Timeline
1891-1902: Stanislaus County Agricultural District Number 38 fairs, Modesto
1911: First Melon Carnival, Turlock, birth of today’s Stanislaus County Fair
1917: Fair suspended as the country entered WWI
1925: First Melon Carnival sponsored by the American Legion
1927: First seven acres of the permanent location acquired
1929: Construction of Arch Gate and placement of time capsule
1935: Stanislaus District Fair succeeds the Melon Carnivals; first Fair horseshow
1937: Purchase of nearby ranch adds to the seven-acre site
1939: The District Agriculture Association assumes sole responsibility for fair
1941: Name “Stanislaus District Fair” used for first time
1942: Fair cancelled due to World War II. Fairgrounds used as Assembly Center for detained Japanese-Americans, then as Army Rehabilitation Center
1946: Fair resumes with 46,555 attendees; fairgrounds now available year-round
1953: Arena grandstands completed
1956: ‘Stanislaus County Fair,’ the present name, officially used for first time
1960: Classes for newly established Stanislaus State College held at the fairgrounds; Floriculture building completed.
1965: First livestock auction held, replacing Oakdale Fat Stock Sale
1968: First woman, Patricia Gaard, appointed to Board of Directors
1975: Fair expands to seven days
1981: Fair expands to nine days
1989: Fair attendance record set—261,089 persons
1994: Fair expands to current 10-day length
1999: Marker unveiled designating Arch Gate recognized as a California State Point of Historical Interest
2010: Memorial erected honoring Japanese Americans detained at the Turlock Assembly Center—California Historical Landmark #943
2011: Centennial of Stanislaus County Fair
Scanning the fair’s history for the key to its success, Alkhas says, “It’s generations of family, and our community, and our staff and our board members, that have kept this fair together.” Looking toward the future, she sees new enthusiasts joining the ‘fair family’ every year. “You have the newer generations coming in and making memories,” she says. “It’s like we’re part of their story, that person’s story. For that to happen—I get goose bumps just thinking of it.”
For More Information:
The 109thStanislaus County Fair— July 10-19th, 2020 Stanislaus County Fairgrounds, Turlock CA. For more information, visit stancofair.com
Notes:1: ‘American Traditions: A Short History of Agricultural Fairs.’ arcadiapublishing.com/Navigation/Community/Arcadia-and-THP-Blog/August-2018/American-Traditions-A-Short-History-of-Agriculture. Accessed November 28, 2019.
2: ‘Fairs: Exploring a California Gold Mine.’ Cdfa.ca.gov/Fairs & Expositions/Documents/SWEReport/Fairs.Report.pdf. Accessed December 1, 2019.