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Tracking State Fair History, Wondering Where its Going

Tracking State Fair History, Wondering Where its Going
Alex Cosper at Cal Expo

I haven’t gone to the California State Fair much over the years, mainly because it’s usually a letdown. In the past, admission has been as high as $10, but this year they are experimenting with $12 in what I call "creative pricing." I haven’t been inside this year’s fair yet so I can’t really comment on it, although I shot some scenes from the exterior perimeter last week and the buzz I felt was typical. The parking lot was closer to full than empty yet it still had the feel of a ghost town full of empty souls. The fair has the potential of being the most exciting event of the year, yet it never quite lives up to that level. If we study the history of the state fair, not too many amazing things stand out, unless they’ve buried all the valuable information in some tomb that may be discovered centuries from now.

Some of my best memories of the fair were going on rides as a kid, way back in the 70s. I also liked how the water tower looked in the beginning when it had a colorful circular design. Now it just says, as plain as possible "Cal Expo" on a white tower. The state fair also had a cool melodic theme song on TV commercials that went  "come to state fair, have fun everywhere" in the 70s. Why that great theme disappeared, we may never know. 

I’ve always wanted to learn about lots of things, but I’ve never found the state fair exhibits to be full of amazing information. Aside from the over-priced unhealthy food and drinks and a few shows here and there, I’m not sure the fair offers much for me. It seems to usually be a commercial showcase like a high priced flea market where you can consider buying anything from a new car to high priced beads that maybe you can flip for a profit on Amazon to someone who’s just bored with life.

I usually like some form of entertainment at the fair. I’ve also liked seeing new bands. But for years the fair has moved in the direction of old bands who only have a few hits from a very long time ago. I do love classic rock and oldies, but more mixed in with all kinds of other music. It’s always fun to hear an old Turtles or Grass Roots song, but I can’t fathom ever listening to exclusively oldies 24/7. I might see Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, since I like a few of their hits from way back. What’s missing from the fair is the sense that it’s about what’s going on in 2012, although there may be a good argument there’s not much going on in music these days, at least on a national level. It seems to me that the state fair would be an excellent venue to showcase up and coming regional talent presented in a compelling way. 

There’s no sense that what happens at the fair becomes a part of state fair history or any kind of history, so maybe organizers should work on that. It mostly has the feel of disposable moments of relaxation and wasting money on all kinds of things a person doesn’t really need for business or pleasure. I certainly have outgrown the temptation to throw coins away on trying to win a big stuffed animal for no reason but to show off a big prize. It would be great if the fair meant something more stunning, like a showcase of future technology, or anything that stimulates the mind.

I did a quick check on the history of the fair to see if anything major happened that would be worth talking about. It was fun studying this history, mostly because I find a way to make history fun, which none of my teachers in school could ever figure out how to do for some reason. California has a rich golden history and so does Sacramento, so I’m not sure why it’s usually presented in a boring way. So I quickly threw together a SacTV video to mix the present with the past and highlight some of the state fair’s most interesting times. Thanks to the state fair’s website, BigFun.org, I was able to learn quite a bit about fair history.

The main State Fair highlights that I found were these notes:

1854 – California’s first state fair was held in San Francisco.

1861 –  Sacramento’s Capitol Park became the new home of the state fair.

1880 –  U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the California state fair.

1895 –  The state fair went electric for the first time.

1909 –  Stockton Boulevard became the new fairgrounds site outside the city limits.

1942 –  The state fair was discontinued through 1947 and used for military purposes.

1948 – California purchased the land to build Cal Expo.

1963 – Cal Expo construction began, costing $33 million.

1968 – The state fair was moved to Cal Expo for its grand opening.

1969 – The monorail debuted at the state fair.

1972 – Cal Expo introduced the California Foest Center.

1983 – Cal Expo Amphitheater opens for  concerts.

2001 – California’s state fair became the fifth most visited state fair in the nation, exceeding one million people.

A more extensive timeline of state fair history can be found at SacTV.com. One of the other interesting things I found was that in the late 1800s one of the most popular events at the fair was two locomotives actually crashing into each other. People found this to be very entertaining before the age of cinema. I probably still would have loved seeing an acoustic concert better. Adventure and insight are the things I wish I could find at a state fair.  I no longer expect those two things, but I’m always hoping creative minds will explore the opportunity. I’d also like to see more independent culture or something that says "this is Sacramento." Most of my best memories of the fairgrounds are concerts I saw of national acts at the Cal Expo Amphiteater in the 80s and 90s. 

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