Trying to arrive at a date for the first-ever Kern County Fair is as exasperating as eating a deep-fried Twinkie on the Tilt-A-Whirl: Even if you manage to do it, you’re bound to have second thoughts.
Beloved though it is, the fair proves to be wily quarry for the researcher. The annual community ritual — a dizzying blur of lights, families, food, livestock, carnival rides, canned preserves and classic rock bands — stretches back in time as far as the memory of even the oldest of Kern old-timers can go.
But how far back exactly?
There have been local expositions, carnivals and livestock shows — some of which were billed as the Kern County Fair — dating to the late 19th century. And it appears that the earliest version of the Kern County Fair as we know it today launched in the mid-1930s.
But the fair is scheduling a big celebration — its centennial — for next year, drawing on in its own records and Californian accounts referring to a six-day event that kicked off on Oct. 24, 1916, as the first annual Kern County Fair.
Sounds like a good enough excuse for a party to us.
However, there are some caveats: Even if we can agree the fair started 99 years ago, it has not run continuously since, and other fair-like events, namely a festival called Frontier Days, stepped up to provide the caramel corn, rodeo and livestock shows when the Kern County Fair fell asleep at the switch.
Those qualifiers aside, if history and The Californian can be trusted, the reports of the momentous opening day don’t get any more small-town 1916 than the joyous scene set by the newspaper account.
Accompanied by a marching band and the record-breaking Hudson Super-Six automobile — fresh from its 10-day San Francisco-to-New-York transcontinental expedition — residents teemed up the city’s main drag, the parade destination the Chester Avenue fairgrounds, present-day site of the Kern County Museum.
Awaiting them was a scene Rockwell could have painted, and probably did: A Ferris wheel, lemonade stands, junior livestock exhibitors with their soon-to-be champion hogs and Herefords, and a bevy of bathing beauties waiting to perform their high-dive act. The modern amenities included “rest rooms for the ladies.”
“Why, I’ve seen a lot of county fairs in my time,” observed a Visalia businessman, “but this tops them all.”
Thousands of schoolchildren were dismissed from classes to parade to the fairgrounds on Day Two, and the mayor ordered all stores and businesses closed the third afternoon, affording no one an excuse to skip the fun.
Total attendance over the six-day affair surpassed even the most optimistic expectations: 20,000 people, nearly a third of the county’s 1920 population of 55,000 residents. Admission was 25 cents, free for children under 12, and the fairgrounds closed at the shocking-for-1916 hour of 10:30 p.m.
“The Exposition Is a Success Financially and Every Other Way” a Californian headline decreed.
But there was a hitch in the hyperbole. After the 1917 fair, the merry-go-round ground to a halt. The carnival barkers barked no more. The popcorn went stale.
There was not another fair until 1925.
Could it have been the flu pandemic? Was everyone super-bummed over Prohibition? Were we biding our time, awaiting the invention of the corn dog?
The reasons for the interruption are not clear. Officials attempted to revive the fair in 1924, but an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease delayed their plan.
And then, after all the waiting and anticipation, the 1925 fair — called the “first annual” in a Californian article — was ... a bust.
Though 65,000 people attended, the fair lost $9,000, much of that deficit likely tied to a reconstruction of the grounds, making prospects for a 1926 fair “dim.”
However, the show did go on in 1927, under the direction of Paul Derkum, one of several men who formed the Kern Fair Association in 1913 and purchased the Chester Avenue property, where the fairgrounds and horse track were constructed.
After the 1927 fair, the county bought the property and buildings. The exposition then fell under the auspices of the Kern County Fair Association, which rebuilt the grounds again in 1937.
The fair continued on from there, though it appears to have been a subdued and truncated celebration during the war years. The Californian called the 1945 fair “the first regular show since Pearl Harbor,” noting that horse-racing was reintroduced that year as well. (Horses were such a big draw over most of the event’s history that for years the exposition was called the Kern County Fair and Horse Show.)
But as war victory streamers rained down on the 1945 fair, so too did a powerful and since-banned pesticide. Fair-goers sang “no flies on me,” thanks to DDT, chirped a Californian headline over a short article dated Sept. 22. Reflecting the no-chemical-is-a-bad-chemical ethos of the time, the fair boasted that 40,000 gallons of the now infamous insecticide was sprayed throughout the grounds.
‘This fair is a biggie’
In 1946, the fair as most of us know it began to take shape when the idea of purchasing land for a new home was floated. The fair simply had outgrown the Chester Avenue facility, which couldn’t adequately handle sewage, drainage, traffic and parking.
In a letter to the editor dated Feb. 5, 1946, Albert S. Goode, of the 15th District Agricultural Association, wrote:
“The fair board of directors has found a new site located south of Bakersfield just west of the property which is usually known as the Union Avenue Plunge. This property is located on a high knoll, has good drainage with a sandy type of soil and is at present open territory.
“Running just south of this site is a railway line connecting Bakersfield with the West Side. We could put a spur tract from the line into our grounds to accommodate the shipping of heavy freight and show stock.”
While the relocation was being worked out, attendance at the six-day 1947 fair, still at the Chester Avenue fairgrounds, spiked to 134,000, making it the third largest fair in the state.
That fair was one for the ages. The junior livestock division set a national record. One lamb, owned by Gilbert Hutchings Jr. of Rosedale brought $22.50 a pound, a national record for meat prices.
In 1948, the board voted to charge admission — 50 cents for adults — for the first time since the fair was revived in the mid-1930s. At that time, the fair received money from the state, which had agreed to allocate $300,000 toward the construction of exposition buildings at the new P Street property. The county Board of Supervisors had recently purchased the 159 acres from the Kern County Land Company with the intention of offering a long-term lease to the fair board and the state.
The 1949 fair shattered the opening day record, with 20,000 passing through the gates. Among the gewgaw gadgets featured in the exposition area was a geiger counter, which allowed fair-goers to hear the instrument “that will determine the fate of everyone, if an atomic war breaks out.”
The 1951 fair, the last at the Chester Avenue fairgrounds, took a sober turn in an area called “the Hall of Health,” described as one of the most popular booths at the fair — a boast probably provided by the health department. Promising to “save lives,” the county offered free diabetes screenings, no doubt arousing countless guilt complexes in fair-goers stuffing their faces with pound cake. (Perhaps the focus on health was to make up for the DDT in 1945?)
And then in 1952, with the opening of the P Street fairgrounds, a new era dawned.
If newspaper accounts are a barometer, the anticipation felt by the community was off the charts. The excitement spread all the way south to Walt Disney Studios, which “as a gesture of friendship to Kern County,” commissioned the artists behind iconic characters like Peter Pan and Snow White to draw K.C. the Bull, the mascot of the fair to this day.
From the Sept. 23 Californian account of the fairgrounds’ grand opening:
“If there is one impression that stands out above all others it is that this fair is a biggie. Everything is spread out more — the swine aren’t crowding the dairy cows, and the farm implements aren’t mixed up with the rabbits.
“Another thing about this fair — you can go just once and you’ll miss a lot of good stuff. Last night, for instance, thousands of folks missed the vaudeville show at the arena, possibly because they didn’t even know there was an arena.”
Tractors running slowly enough to allow even those of “medium spryness” to hop on and off with ease ferried patrons to and from the three exposition buildings and livestock barns. Entertainment consisted of organ music, puppet shows and Bozo the clown — hey, it was a simpler time.
The fair advertised a “continual 10-hour telecast from the large stage in front of the exhibit building No. 9.” Lucky fair-goers would see themselves up on screens installed throughout the grounds.
All told, a then-record 147,922 people attended the seven-day fair, the first of 62 and counting at the P Street fairgrounds.
And while the history of the Kern County Fair doesn’t end here, it’s at this point in the story that the most important memories — our own — start to kick in.