July 8, 2013

State Fair builds on 160 years of fun, learning

To Sacramento, it wouldn't be summer without the State Fair. But some summers were definitely more memorable.

To Sacramento, it wouldn't be summer without the State Fair. But some summers were definitely more memorable.

Train wrecks? Car crashes? Mayhem? Those were the days.

More often, the State Fair mixed innovation with family-friendly fun. From the start, it billed itself as the ultimate showcase for California's bounty and potential.

This week, the State Fair celebrates many of the same values that distinguished the inaugural event.

"Historically, the fair has always offered the best and brightest in California," said Rick Pickering, the State Fair's new CEO. "That list has no end.

"For our 160th anniversary, there will be some things new, but in many ways, we're going back to what the fair has always been about," he added. "It's a celebration of great ideas."

Almost since its inception in 1854 (in San Francisco), the fair has been an integral part of Sacramento's identity.

"Absolutely, it's part and parcel of growing up in Sacramento," said historian Carson Hendricks, author of "California State Fair" (Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $21.99, 128 pages) and a Sacramento native. "It's an inexpensive way of having a lot of fun. You always walk out of that place knowing more than when you walked in."

After hosting the second fair in 1855, the capital became the fair's permanent home four years later via an act of the state Legislature.

"In the beginning, they moved it around to various cities so people didn't have to travel so far," said Patricia Johnson, senior archivist for the Center for Sacramento History. "They finally decided on one place – and Sacramento was it."

Sacramento secured the State Fair after county citizens overwhelmingly approved a 1/4-cent property tax to fund construction. (Remember: This was less than 10 years after statehood.)

The California Agricultural Society hosted exhibits at a pavilion built at Sixth and M streets. Horse racing and livestock judging were held at Union Park racetrack at 20th and H streets.

"In 1859, they hadn't even broken ground for the new Capitol," noted William Burg, president of the Sacramento Old City Association.

James Warren, a seed merchant originally from Massachusetts, saw the State Fair as a way to promote California produce. Warren is credited with helping make Sacramento the fair's permanent home, stressing the need for a centralized agricultural showcase.

The State Fair became an instant sensation. "It's always been a big draw," Johnson said. "People love to come to the fair. It's an important institution."

Sacramento shaped the State Fair's image and vice versa. "The fair was defined by its presence in Sacramento," Burg said, "and Sacramento had that relationship.

"Sacramento was built with agricultural money," he explained. "The Gold Rush lasted only a few years. Sacramento became the state's transportation hub; a cornucopia of Valley produce poured into Sacramento. The State Fair was a way to show off what Sacramento and California could do."

Some features remained constant over the decades. The State Fair always had horse racing (even when gambling was outlawed from 1904 to 1932). Blue-ribbon livestock and agricultural exhibits showcased the state's bounty. County exhibits exuded regional pride.

Fair organizers always knew how to put on a spectacle. If bigger meant better, Sacramento wanted the best.

In 1884, the State Fair moved into its Grand Pavilion at 15th and N streets in what's now Capitol Park. At 124,000 square feet, the pavilion was the largest exhibit hall in the nation.

"It really was quite stunning," Johnson said. "But they ran out of room to expand."

To accommodate massive crowds, the fair moved again to the edge of town – Stockton Boulevard and Broadway. Eventually expanding to about 200 acres, that site hosted its first fair in 1909.

By then, the State Fair had become a spectacular showcase with the fastest planes and crashing trains.

"This really was the era of world fairs," Burg said. "Essentially, the State Fair could be a permanent World Fair every year."

Said Johnson, "They did everything: bicycle races, motorcycle races, airplane races over the top of the racetrack. Of course, they had horse races. But the real big thing was crashing locomotives."

From 1913 to 1917, the State Fair staged train wrecks in the racetrack infield. (You can see a film of these "State Fair Special" wrecks on YouTube.) The exception was 1915 when the fair was not held due to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal.

"They crashed trains just to amuse fairgoers," Johnson said. "By the 1940s, they switched to demolition derby and car crashes. It's the same idea."

As California's car culture grew in the 1950s, the State Fair hosted NASCAR Grand National races on its dirt racetrack.

"The other really spectacular thing, they built a lake in the infield and held speedboat races," Johnson added. "They also did diving and water skiing acrobatics."

During the Broadway days, the fair always opened with a cattle drive and parade across Sacramento down K Street. World War II saw a pause in the tradition as the fairgrounds became an Army encampment and the State Fair was put on a four-year hold.

After the war, the fair again got ready to move due to lack of space. The main problem: parking.

"In the post-war era, Sacramento expanded into the suburbs and so did the fair," Burg said. "They built a modernistic auto-based fair at Cal Expo."

Purchased in 1949, the original Cal Expo site stretched 1,065 acres along the American River at the crossroads of two major U.S. highways – 40 and 99. Planners envisioned "a Disneyland of the north" and year-round world's fair with two golf courses and a beachfront mimicking the Pacific.

The Korean War and recession delayed that development almost 20 years. Scaled down to 356 acres, Cal Expo opened in 1968 as the Space Age fair for the future.

But only three years later, the fair suffered its darkest August. For three nights in 1971, rock-throwing youths clashed with riot police in an extended skirmish over squatting rights on a grassy knoll near the main entrance. In all, police made 58 arrests; 30 people – mostly officers – were reported injured. But that mayhem was only a blip in the fair's lengthy history.

"The fair was the No. 1 draw in the state for more than a hundred years," Hendricks said. "Some things are still worth searching out. The State Fair is one of those things."


Where: 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento

When: Friday through July 28

Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Sundays

Admission: $12 general, $10 ages 62-plus, $8 children 5-12, free for children 4 and younger

Parking: $10

For more information:

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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