After 138 years of operating at the same place at the same time of year, the fair has become a mainstay of Fresno Octobers. But how did this fair get its start? What else can we learn about it?
If you’ve ever spent an October in Fresno, you probably know about the Big Fresno Fair. As one of the largest fairs in California, the Big Fresno fair hosts about 600,000 people every year for live music, intriguing exhibits, carnival rides and more!
In 1882, a group of Fresno businessmen and farmers wanted to show off the growing agricultural scene in San Joaquin Valley. To accomplish this, they founded the Fresno Fair Ground Association. Two years later, after incorporating the association and purchasing the fairgrounds, the First Fresno Fair was held. In these early days, the fair looked very different from the bright lights and spectacle we know and love.
Instead, the fair’s main attraction was horse racing. In those days, gambling on horse races was legal, but mostly conducted on an individual basis. The horse race meet lasted five days, while a few produce and livestock displays stood nearby. After its third year, the fair began to introduce more attractions—including a grandstand and $20,000 pavilion erected for the 1888 fair.
The First Setback
Unfortunately, this period of growth came to a screeching halt when a depression hit in the 1890s. To make matters worse, the fairground was foreclosed in 1895. The grounds’ new owners allowed the fair to continue until Fresno County purchased it in 1901.
Several years followed in which there was no Fair, though many other organizations tried to take up the mantle. Unfortunately, none of these would-be successors were successful.
The Eberhart Era
The recovery began in earnest in 1910, when the association hired Clyde Eberhart to run the fair. Eberhart had a vision for the fair, and he turned it into a place of spectacle. He introduced car races and airplane rides, and organized the Raisin Day parades—which often featured famous actors and actresses.
He was also known to organize wild spectacles, the most famous of which was the Great Train Wreck of 1919. The Fair organizers purchased two trains from the Santa Fe Railway—each with an engine, three cars, and a caboose—strapped them with dynamite, and placed them on a collision course. The massive wreck attracted more than 25,000 spectators, raising Fair attendance to 100,000 that year.
Sadly, the golden age of the Eberhart Era was not to last. When a depression hit local grape growers, the Rasin Day parades—one of the Fair’s main attractions—had no choice but to cancel. To make matters worse, a terrible tragedy struck the race track. In punishment, county supervisors refused to provide funding for the Fair.
Without this funding, the Fair was unable to open again until the 1930s, as a shadow of its former self. A group from the Fresno County Junior Farm Bureau, however, decided to take matters into their own hands. They rallied support and voted to sponsor the Fair in 1934.
For the rest of the decade, the Fair continued as it once had. Alas, the world had bigger issues, and World War II struck in 1942. The grounds—normally a place of excitement and joy—became a place of suffering when it was converted into an internment camp, then a military facility.
The Dodge Era – The Present
In 1948, with the war in the past, the Fair reopened with Tom Dodge taking the lead. Under his stewardship, the Fair became one of the largest traditions in the country.
The Fair’s become recognized throughout the state and nation through numerous awards and charitable causes. The Fair combines exciting carnival rides with education about the Valley’s agricultural history, water conservation, the environment, and more.
If you’re coming into town for the fair and are looking for more things to do in the Fresno area, check out our blog! If you’re looking for more great tips, consider signing up for our email newsletter. And if you like what you see and decide you want to stay, we can help you find your Fresno forever home!