The Ventura Fair’s rich reputation began in the 1870s

June 17, 2005
Santa Paula News

In the beginning, fans from as “far away” as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles arrived by trainloads to enjoy the festivities that began on San Miguel’s Day, Sept. 29, 1874.

By Alicia DoyleIn the beginning, fans from as “far away” as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles arrived by trainloads to enjoy the festivities that began on San Miguel’s Day, Sept. 29, 1874.The celebration coincided with the grand opening of the Ventura Trotting Park, a one-mile racetrack set below the bluffs at Pierpont Bay, now the Ventura Keys residential area.Prominent community leaders of the day included Nick Covarubias, J.M. Miller and J.H. Thompson, who served as judges for three days of galloping and trotting races. The Ventura Brass Band performed, and Col. J.D. Hines - a noted early Venturan - delivered the dedication address.According to press coverage at the time, I.T. Saxby, president of the fair’s board of directors, donated a “fine riding whip” from his Ventura Lumber Yard as an award for the most graceful lady equestrian. Other awards: saddles and bridles, engraved napkin rings, imported Japanese tea, imported Bohemian toilet seats from Enstein & Bernheim, and tortoiseshell calling-card cases engraved via courtesy of W.E. Shepard and John Sheridan, publishers of the Ventura Signal.Livestock and agricultural exhibits came in 1875, providing competition for the popular horse races and creating the atmosphere of a traditional county fair.In 1876, the fairgrounds were fenced and visitors paid 50 cents for general admission. The purse for the major race - $700 - was considered exceptionally high at the time.Needlework highlighted the first home exhibits and more contests were added in 1877, including awards for the prettiest, fattest and ugliest baby, prettiest maid, most handsome gentleman and most attractive suckling colt.In 1891, the fair moved to Port Hueneme to a new racetrack built by Thomas Bard, which attracted more than 1,100 people on opening day.
The fair moved back to Ventura in 1914, taking up permanent residence on 65 acres donated by E.P. Foster. The site was named Seaside Park after the already established Seaside Park Driving Association. A new fair organization was also formed in conjunction with the Seaside Park Driving Association, and later merged under the California State Department of Fairs and Expositions, through the 31st District Agricultural Association.In 1915, chariot racing came to Ventura, attracting more than 12,000 attendees. Oxnard blacksmith Art Thomas, the chariot maker, used specifications procured in Pasadena by fair board president Adolfo Camarillo. The chariots were hitched to four horses abreast instead of two, and principal contestants were Jim Donlon and Tom Clark, with Clark grabbing the winning time of 58 seconds.The following year, additional main attractions included the “most perfect baby” competition, won that year by James Arniell Petit, three-year-old son of one-time Ventura major Charles Petit.There were no fairs during the years of World War I, through most of the Depression and World War II.In 1946, the State of California took title of Seaside Park from Ventura and erected the first permanent buildings on the grounds. The buildings - converted aircraft hangars - are still in use today for the fair’s youth and commercial exhibits.The fair was extended to five days in 1952, and to six days in 1976. In 1981, the fair began its first 10-day run, relieving some pressure of growing crowds by spreading attendance over a longer period of time. As a result, exhibitors of flowers, food and other perishable items could enter the first, middle or last part of the fair to ensure freshness and appearance. This year’s Ventura County Fair is 12 days long, from August 3 through August 14, 2005.Over the years, regular fair-goers have seen many changes in exhibits and entertainment. Top performers have become a fixture, with past attractions including Willie Nelson, the Charlie Daniels Band, Juice Newton and Linda Ronstadt.In addition to its regular exhibits, the fair will celebrate its 130th anniversary this year with Hoobastank, Styx, Lonestar, Julie Roberts with Terri Clark, Mel Tillis and News Boys topping the musical bill.

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