Shortly after Orange County was developed in 1889, the Orange County Fair Corporation was formed. In 1890, the newly formed group put on a small Fair that included a horse race and a few exhibits. Races were conducted at the Santa Ana racetrack at Bristol and Edinger. Famed racehorse Silkwood, won a $1,500 purse in 1892. In 1894, another group was formed and took over the reins of organizing the Fair. They were called the Orange County Fair Association. Agriculture exhibits were held in French’s Opera House near Fourth and bush streets in Santa Ana. On opening day of the Fair in 1897, Ladies’ Day, all women were admitted free. An opening day barbeque featured barbecued beef, frijoles, came asada, bread and costillas.
In 1906 the Fair was held in December to celebrate the completion of the Pacific Electric Railway from Los Angeles to Santa Ana. The Fair was called the “Parade of Products” in which floats and various products of the county were displayed. The Fair was so successful that in succeeding years it was expanded to three days and the name changed to the “Carnival of Products”, with a different street parade each day. A large tent was used for the exhibits. A queen of the Fair was elected who rode in the parade with her princesses. The “Carnival of Products” was one of the big events of the year in Santa Ana, and assisted in the development of the city and the influx of new citizens in the community.
In 1911, Monica Megee reigned as queen of the Fair which was named the “Anaheim Carnival” and held in Anaheim at Clementine and Cypress streets. The Fair disbanded for two years during World War I. Huntington Beach become the home of the Fair, now called the “Harvest Home Festival” and the “Community Fall Festival” in 1917, and continued there through 1921. The Fair was held in four large pole tents. The Fair featured a largest pumpkin contest, rare fruit displays, jellies, needlework, band concerts, motorcycle races, more that 300 poultry coops, floral products, rabbits, a library exhibit and tractors. A replica of the Orange County Harbor was displayed in 1918 and a parade was held to commemorate the fall Fair. The Huntington Beach Pier, erected in 1914, was elaborately decorated during Fair Time.
In the 1920s, the fair was sponsored by several entities including the chambers of commerce of Santa Ana and Huntington Beach and the Farm Bureau. Locations for the Fair included East Fruit Street and Santa Ana, and also near the Orange County Hospital. The automobile was a feature exhibit at the 1922 fair. The Fair was not held in 1924 due to a Foot and Mouth epidemic of cattle. The first Orange County Fair Board was elected in 1925. Fair officials purchased 39 acres of the Orange Grove district for the fairgrounds. Horse racing continued to be a big attraction. The Fair added a carnival, rodeo, and presented allegories each evening depicting the development of Orange County.
In the 1930s, the Fair changed locations, which included Santa Ana and Pomona, when it participated in a tri-county fair. The Fair’s name changed to the California Valencia Orange Show and then to the Orange County Fair and Horse Show. When the Depression was taking a toll on the California Fairs, thoroughbred horses came to the rescue. The California Horse Racing Act of 1933 legalized pari-mutual betting on horse racing and allowed for a portion of the receipts to support the fairs. This funding continues today. In 1936, the “Greatest Historical Parade” was held which recounted the romantic story of California in floats and picturesque groups entered by communities throughout the Southland. More than 1,000 costumed people and 500 horses participated. Glen Gray and his celebrated Casa Loma Orchestra entertained fair patrons in 1938. The era ended with the first participation of 4-H Clubs exhibiting and entering competitions at the invitation of the Santa Ana Assistance League.
In the 1940s, the Fair changed locations from the Santa Ana Bowl, to Anaheim and then found a permanent home at the Santa Ana Army Air Base property in 1949. The State of California authorized purchase of the base to be utilized as the fairgrounds for the 32nd District Agricultural Association in 1949. The Federal government mandated against large county fairs being held during World War II so the Orange County Fair was not held from 1942 to 1947. When the Fair resumed in 1948, patrons were treated to a double Ferris wheel, a quarter mile of booths and stalls, skill games and food concessions. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. Agriculture exhibits and competitions increased in popularity.
1949 – The Orange County Fair was relocated to an old army base, which became part of Costa Mesa. The State of California purchased the property for $130,195.
During the 1950s the Queens of the Fair continued to reign, with many of the years having a pirate theme. Many army barracks on the fairgrounds were sold. Five two-story barracks were sliced lengthwise and put together to become one-story buildings. The commerce Building, at 38,000 square feet, became the largest building of its type in Orange County. Memorial Gardens, a memorial in honor of the army air base, was formally dedicated on Veterans Day in 1958. Features at the fairs in the 1950s included the sensational daily ostrich races, pogo stick races, helicopter rides, a wild animal circus and entertainment including Lawrence Welk, Spade Cooley, the Four Freshmen and Icelandia, a musical comedy on ice. Agricultural exhibits included cotton and alfalfa from Imperial County; avocados from San Diego County; lemons, oranges and grapefruits from Riverside and Orange Counties. In 1959, one of the most popular Fair attractions was a 2-bedroom house valued at $5,000 in the main mall. Total attendance in 1959 was a record 101,000.
From 1960 to 1968, the Fair had a Hawaiian theme. The Fair queens became Aloha Queens, and Hilo Hattie was at the Fair in her Hawaiian review. Agricultural exhibits became a major thrust of the fair. A championship rodeo became a part of the Fair in 1962 and in 1966 a new arena with a covered grandstand was completed. Entertainment in the 1960s included the Lennon Sisters, Glen Campbell, Monty Montana, Lou Rawls and the Authentic Ballet Folklorico. A push button phone was presented by Pac Bell in 1963, and in 1968, when the Fair theme changed to Yesterday Meets Tomorrow, boats and recreational vehicles were new features. A scale model of Apollo 11 was featured in 1969 as the era ended.
1969 – Market Place opened
In 1970, Memorial Gardens on the fairgrounds became a historical landmark. The first fair stamp in the nation became a reality in 1972 and a special post office was set up at the Fair. Entertainment in the 1970s increased in variety. Fair patrons saw Pat Boone, the Everly Brothers, the Coasters, Skiles & Henderson, Tex Williams, the Red Buttons Band, Bob Hope, Rosemary Clooney, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, The Four Freshmen, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Elvin Bishop, B.J. Thomas, and Rick Nelsen & the Stone Canyon Band. Additional rodeo attractions included James Drury and the “World’s Unofficial Chili-Eating Contest”. Past Fair queens had a reunion during the pageant at the Crescendo in Anaheim in 1977. The first thoroughbred race meeting at Los Alamitos sponsored by the 32nd District Agricultural Association became a reality in the fall of 1977. The Orange County Wine Competition began in 1978. Total attendance in 1979 reached a record of 306.022.
1980 – The Fairgrounds Equestrian Center was constructed in the northeast portion of the fairgrounds on 15 acres.
1989 – The OC Fair & Event Center dedicated three acres to create a working farm known as “Centennial Farm.” The idea was not only to promote Orange County’s rice agricultural history. In 1989, the OC Fair & Event Center dedicated three acres to create a working farm known as “Centennial Farm”. The idea was not only to promote Orange County’s rice agricultural history, but also to highlight California agriculture in general. Agriculture has been the #1 industry in California for many years, providing a bountiful food supply and countless jobs.
Many youngsters today remain blind to the important role agriculture plays in their lives. Responding to this need for greater understanding, Centennial Farm at the OC Fair & Event Center helps open young eyes to see how our food, clothing, housing and quality of life depend on agriculture.
As California becomes more urbanized, particularly with the rapid development of former farmlands in Orange County, we have accepted the challenge of bringing agriculture education to the public, with a special emphasis on children, who will become tomorrow’s decision makers and consumers.
The OC Fair & Event Center and Centennial Farm Foundation invite you to join us in this exciting challenge to help educate the youth of Southern California about agriculture in an educational, entertaining, and easy way. Our future depends on it.
The themes of the Fair in 1990 “Very Berry Extraordinary,” and in 1991, “How Sweet It Is!” exemplify the state of the fairs in the 1990s. In 1990, the Fair saluted pigs and strawberries and Shortcake, the 450-pound Yorkshire-Hampshire pig, became a celebrity with her piglets in Centennial Farm, a new attraction. A record attendance of 555,106 verified the popularity of the annual Fair. The 99th edition of the fair saluted bees and honey. History was made when Dr. Norm Gray, an entomologist from University of California at Davis, performed daily in the arena, covering his body with pheromones (the perfume of the queen bee), resulting in several hundred thousand bees covering his body while he played the clarinet in the key of B. He appeared and performed this feat on the Johnny Carson Show during the run of the Fair. He also designed working beehives that were viewed through Plexiglass. A new attraction in 1991 was Centennial Hall, which included historic exhibits of the past 99 years of the Orange County Fair. Attendance records were broken on eleven of the twelve days for a total of 637,014.
Attendance increased to record levels in the first years of the Fair’s new century, growing to 808,810 in 2000 and to an all-time high of 843,347 in 2001. Fairgoers were attracted by concert artists such as Jose Feliciano, the Everly Brothers, Isaac Hayes, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Charo, Chubby Checker, Billy Ray Cyrus, Hall & Oates, Gallagher and Lee Greenwood. Everything was “Hot! Hot! Hot!” as the theme of the 2000 Fair saluted hot peppers and how they spice up our lives. In 2001, the Fair’s theme of “Twist & Shout” celebrated the importance of citrus and sun to Orange County specifically and California in general. Irvin C. Chapman, who served 27 years on the Fair Board and whose father C.C. Chapman was considered the father of Orange County’s Valencia orange industry, was honored during 2001 opening day ceremonies. A “Blossom to Awesome” display related the citrus industry’s local history. Millennium Barn, which at 47 feet became the fair’s tallest building, opened in time for the 2000 Fair. Among most popular attractions of the 2000s were the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs and hypnotist Mark Yuzuik, whose skills brought out the singing, dancing and star potential of selected members of his audiences. Shade areas were extended for fairgoers’ comfort. Thrill seekers found satisfaction with the huge Euroslide and the 15-story high La Grande Wheel, which provided a panoramic view of much of Orange County. The 2001 Fair also saluted the 50th anniversary of the “I Love Lucy” TV show with an interactive exhibit/museum and a Lucy look-alike contest. In 2005, the Fair broke the million-visitor mark for the first time with 1,058,192 fairgoers attending that year. The lucky millionth visitor, 7-year old Rebecca Harris of Anaheim, was awarded a lifetime pass to the Fair to mark the record-breaker.
2003 – Equestrian Center cut in half.
2003 – The Orange County Fair and Exposition Center is an economic, social and cultural treasure for local communities. In 2002, the fair organization contributed roughly $185.2 million in economic impact to Los Angeles, Orange and Sand Diego counties, created 2,184 local jobs and generated more than $2.3 million in local tax revenues.
2005 – Name changed to “OC Fair and Event Center”
2008 – Fair Board decides they want to eliminate the Equestrian Center in favor of “flat flexible space”.
2010 – More than just a Fairgrounds; the Orange County Fair and Events Center is the jewel of Orange County. Equestrian Center is open daily. Thursday Farmers Market and weekend is the Market Place. Orange Coast College uses the fairgrounds for parking on weekdays. Other events that come to the Center are; Crossroads of the West Gun Show, Sugar Plum Arts & Crafts Festival, Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction, The Gem Faire, Pet Expo, Costa Mesa Speedway, Persian Faire, OC Marathon, Motorsports Expo, Youth Expo, BrideWorld Expo, Sand Sports Super Show and more……….