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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

History of the Tulare County Fair

Aug 25, 2018 11:00AM ● By Enjoy Magazine

All is Fair

By Natalie Caudle

EVERY SEPTEMBER, nostalgia and excitement spring up in downtown Tulare as the Tulare County Fair beckons patrons of all ages to experience the odd-couple marriage of agricultural jubilee and carnival magic. Originally begun in 1919 by Tulare farmers in hopes of improving hog and cattle sales, the fair soon grew into an annual celebration of regional pride featuring grand exhibits and entertainment. Mobs feverishly flocked to the fairgrounds, anxious to experience aerial circuses, dog racing and Portuguese-style rodeo. 

Prior to World War II, fairgoers were dazzled by fireworks and soon became accustomed to the rhythm of fair traditions. Annual exhibits and contests were established, giving guests the opportunity to earn the coveted blue ribbon for their entry of raisin pie or strawberry jam. Each year brought increased excitement, upping the ante and the expectations of patrons. Entertainment acts enticed local residents to delight in evening dances, musical troupes, magic shows and peculiar performances by trick mules and comedy goats.

In 1931, guests were provided the opportunity to send a free wire overseas as radio operators, using an amateur set, helped fairgoers connect with loved ones. A year later fair gates opened with a fleet of airplanes flying overhead, welcoming guests to the extravaganza while further within the grounds crowds watched what was once called the “greatest night horse show ever to be held in the county.” Within the exhibit halls, the Women’s Department featured a Fiesta Motif in the early 1930s with displays of Chinese tapestries and Portuguese art. The fair continued to successfully attract a wide variety of patrons and participants, especially those with farming backgrounds. 

Originally established with agricultural roots, the Future Farmers division immediately flourished, reaching beyond Tulare County. Students from 10 high schools in three counties began to participate in the showing and auctioning of livestock and poultry. To this day, FFA students still anxiously anticipate fair week and their hard-earned moment in the show ring. Annika Ransberger, a member of the Redwood High School FFA, says, “Showing at the fair has helped me learn how to work with a team and has allowed me to meet other people with similar passions.” For close to a century, students have raised, trained and shown various livestock from hogs to Holsteins, providing a truly educational counterpart to the carnival commotion.  

Disaster threatened the 1952 fair when a late summer fire destroyed the old pavilion, automobile exhibit hall and various other buildings a month prior to opening day. With hard work and creative planning, the fair committee forged ahead, declaring that the annual event was not to be interrupted. Fair manager Alfred J. Eilliot enticed patrons with the promise of a grand event: “We’ve got everything, including livestock entries that will make Noah’s Ark look like a sideshow.” The following year, attendance decreased but permanent buildings replaced tents and structures that had been destroyed in the fire.

As the decade continued, motorcycle races were added to the attractions, drawing in new crowds while established rhythms remained. The annual Pioneer Day continued, a tradition long before instituted by W.B. Cartmill, honoring Tulare County residents who had lived in the region since 1880. In 1958, Fred Fisher, age 104, and Grace Haire, age 91, were given the title of Eldest Pioneers. Attractions and entertainment progressed through the decades, bringing modern sounds and styles to the grounds and successfully drawing multigenerational patronage for nearly a century.

As the years have crept by, vendors, rides and acts have been replaced, but the allure remains the same. Pamela Fyock, executive vice president of the Tulare County Fair Foundation, captures the continuing spirit of the fair: “People come for fair food, livestock and carnival. The fair exists to educate the public.” Guests now enjoy monster trucks instead of greyhound races, and headline entertainment features Clay Walker and Smashmouth where square dancing was once center stage. Nevertheless, the fair will never lose the sentiment of yesteryear with butter cow sculptures, award-winning baked goods, cotton candy, rodeo and tractor pulls. Turkey races may be a thing of the past, but the annual frenzy and celebration of local agriculture will never disappear.  • 

Tulare County Fair • 620 South K Street, Tulare

(559) 686-4707 • • Fair dates September 12-16

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