By Jim Tortolano
If it’s July, it must be time for hundreds of thousands – perhaps over a million – of Orange County residents to head down to Costa Mesa for the annual Orange County Fair.
The fair is nearly as old as the county itself and like the county, it’s been through lots of changes – and some dangers – over the years. This year’s Fair, planned for July 11 to Aug. 10, will continue a tradition that started in 1890 and which has grew from primarily a livestock exhibition to a multi-faceted event with concerts, carnival rides and some of the weirdest food around.
Orange County split off from Los Angeles County in 1889, and the very next year saw the formation of the Orange County Community Fair Corporation. That group put on an event in Santa Ana featuring horse races and some exhibits.
The Fair bounced around from location to location, stopping in Huntington Beach, Anaheim and Santa Ana over the years. The new Orange County Fair Bureau took over the fair and gave it a semi-permanent home in the Anaheim-Orange area in 1916.
In 1925 the fair took on a look that might be more familiar to present-day visitors, adding a rodeo and a carnival.
The Thirties and Forties were tough on the fair; the Great Depression forced consolidation of with Los Angeles and Riverside County events from 1930 to 1936. World War II shortages of rubber, oil and other strategic goods led to a suspension of large county fairs at the request of the federal government from 1942-47.
The biggest turning point in the history of the fair came after World War II. The old Santa Ana Army Air Force Base was declared surplus land and purchased by the State of California. Most of the land was located in an area which in 1953 would become the City of Costa Mesa.
For the price of $260,000 (split between the state and the fair board) the present 150-acre site of the fair was bought, offering the annual event a permanent home at last. (Other parts of the former base became locations for Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa High School and the Costa Mesa City Hall).
Then, as the county itself boomed, the fair blossomed from its origins as a five-day event to one that stretches over more than three weeks. Attendance rose past half a million by 1989, now regularly tops one million.
During the Great Recession the fairground was in some jeopardy, as in 2009 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended that the site be sold because it was “surplus or underutilized assets.” Lawsuits slowed the planned sale, which was eventually stopped by the next governor, Jerry Brown.
Its fate again secure, the fair annually throngs with both locals and visitors. They come to ride the rides, enjoy the concerts and eat the only-available-here food like deep-fried cereal and bacon-wrapped turkey legs.
For more information, go to http://ocfair.com .
Sources: Orange County Fair, Wikipedia, Orange County Register.