Shortly after the discovery of gold, the state’s first daily newspaper Alta California encouraged the formation of an agricultural society to enhance the State’s reputation as an ideal place for farming and industry. Eager to meet that challenge, the California legislature created the State Agricultural Society in 1852. Eighty enthusiastic individuals signed up for the initial effort to plan an agricultural exposition.
In 1854 the first California State Fair was held in San Francisco.
Travel was a hardship for many in those days so organizers arranged for the Fair to move locations each year. Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, and Marysville hosted the Fair for the subsequent four years. Pioneer residents quickly recognized tremendous riches in the fertile soil and so California’s number one industry, agriculture, was born. The Fair was the yearly source of entertainment and education for early settlers, drawing huge crowds of as many as 15,000 on a single day.
When the Fair returned to Sacramento in 1859, a decision was made to find a permanent home. Sacramento was a bustling city with more than 2,500 buildings and a newly installed water system using two and a half miles of pipe. Six square blocks between E and H Streets from 20th to 22nd Streets were bought with monies raised through a special election and contributions from local citizens. This site was called Capitol Park. One aspect of those early Fairs that deserves special mention is the significance of the horse.
Without the horse, it’s questionable how the West could have developed. The horse provided transportation and entertainment, and California’s role in the breeding of fine horses and the development of the sport of horseracing led the way. The California State Fair played a significant role in this development.
By the turn of the century, the popularity and growth of the State Fair forced organizers to find a larger site. The Capitol Park location was sold and the State Agricultural Society then purchased 100 acres southeast of the city limits on Stockton Boulevard, which opened in the summer of 1909.
For the next 58 years, the Fair continued to evolve and flourish. Some today might remember the Hall of Flowers and theGolden Bear sentinels that stood guard outside the brick County Building.The Fair features in 1854 were 2 inch long peanuts, 72 pound beets, and a 10-pound carrot measuring 3 feet long. Thrill shows, contests and pageants were introduced to enliven the summer event. Sometime in the 1870’s, California’s counties began to compete for “bragging rights” by creating exhibits showcasing their part of the state. This competition continues and today the Counties Exhibits are some of the most popular annual Fair exhibits among fairgoers.
Around the turn of the century, Fair organizers staged a train wreck delighting spectators as two locomotives crashed creating masses of twisted, steaming steel. This sensational demonstration was a huge hit and continued until the beginning of World War I. Just prior to the war, carnival rides were introduced. In those early years, exhibitors from throughout the state brought their livestock to the State Fair by rail. Today, the California State Fair hosts world-class livestock competitions and showcases biotechnology such as DNA analysis. For the centennial celebration in 1954, 10,000 ladies were given free orchids. A popular attraction was “Dancing Waters,” a 30-foot high colored water fountain that pulsated to music. Entertainment played a major role in the State Fair and big name acts like Jack Benny, Peggy Lee, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello and Duke Ellington appeared.
The California State Fair has come a long way since those days. Since welcoming the 21st Century, the State Fair has grown to more than one million visitors annually and proudly stages an international celebration of world unity and cultural diversity unlike any other in the State. Today the California State Fair is housed at Cal Expo on 356 acres adjacent to the American River.
The Fair continues to attract guests from all over the world by offering affordable family entertainment and a wide selection of attractions showcasing the international diversity of the Golden State. California’s Fair is the only fair or amusement park in the nation to boast its own police department, with more than 200 sworn officers representing 33 different law enforcement agencies. In addition, the Fair maintains one of three operational monorails in the country. The award-winning Demonstration Farm and The Forest Center, operated by the California Forest Products Commission, are both popular “living” exhibits. Another unique feature of the State Fair is the beautiful lagoon situated in the middle of the Cal Expo property, an asset held by an elite number of fairgrounds in North America.
California State Fair Timeline
1848 The cry of “Gold!” first heard in Coloma, California.
1850 California gained statehood as the 31st state.
1854 California legislature created the State Agricultural Society and the first annual California State Fair was held in San Francisco’s Music Hall located on the corner of Bush and Montgomery Streets. The livestock was quartered in Mission Delores. $4,660 paid in premiums. The first Fair was managed and funded by Col. J.L.L. Warren, a respected California seed and floral agribusiness man.
1857 Showing of manufactured goods was featured at the Fair.
1861 California legislature designated the capital city of Sacramento the Fair’s permanent location.
1871 Completion of transcontinental railroad allowed for the first exchange of produce across the country for display at fairs and expositions. The Floral Garden was added to the State Fair.
1879 A Fine Arts Show was added to the State Fair.
1880 Capitol Park Pavilion was built at 15th and N Streets making it the largest building in all of California and for the first time, all departments of the Fair were held at one location. President Rutherford B. Hayes only U.S. President to visit the Fair.
1895 Electricity came to the fairgrounds.
1903 California State Fair hosted first automobile race.
1904 State Fair Board of Directors voted to abolish gambling and the sale of spirits on the fairgrounds.
1909 Grand opening of State Fair on 80-acre site at Stockton Blvd.
1911 Wild West Show and Chariot Race featured at the Fair.
1916 As a result of the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition, international exhibits were added to the Fair.
1921 First annual fireworks display presented by Patrick Lizza who traveled from Pennsylvania.
1929 Pay toilets installed at the Fair.
1933 Parking fees instituted at the Fair (25 cents outside, 50 cents inside fairgrounds), Goodyear Blimp landed at the Fair, horse betting reinstated.
1937 Stockton Blvd. site expanded 75 acres and a horse show arena and racetrack grandstand were constructed.
1942 During the war, the Army occupied the fairgrounds and no State Fair was held from 1942-1946.
1948 1,000 acres of land was purchased along the American River to build larger fairgrounds. Televisions were exhibited for the first time.
1954 State Fair 100th anniversary celebration unveiled a fountain that shot water 30’ into the air.
1963 California legislature approved funds to construct Cal Expo
1967 Final year Fair held at Stockton Blvd. facility.
1968 Governor Ronald W. Reagan officially opened Cal Expo.
1969 6,800 foot-long Monorail was completed.
1972 California Forest Center opens.
1983 Demonstration Farm Exhibit opens.
1987 Fair hosts world’s largest Dairy Goat Show.
1994 World’s first DNA testing of livestock introduced at State Fair.
2001 Over one million guests visited the California State Fair ranking it fifth largest fair in the nation.
2002 September 11 Memorial Exhibit was opened.
2004 State Fair celebrates 150 years.
2005 Cal Expo becomes the only home of live harness racing on the West Coast.
2006 State Fair hosts its first ‘Most Talented Kid’ Competition.
2007 Cal Expo begins formal discussions with NBA to build new fairgrounds and sports arena.
2008 Cal Expo celebrates 40th Anniversary.
2008 Live Thoroughbred Racing returns to the State Fair after a three year hiatus.
2009 Cal Expo Board votes to change State Fair dates to July, starting in 2010