By Diane Y. Welch
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the San Diego County Fair’s location at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which opened to great fanfare in the fall of 1936.
The county fair’s history is one that draws on local personalities and international celebrities. Yet its roots started humbly in 1880 when Frank Kimball spearheaded the first-ever county fair in National City. Itinerant in its early decades, the fair was picked up by interested parties in Escondido in the late 1880s. News accounts retold how Wyatt Earp served as the equestrian judge. Exhibits were housed in a circus tent erected at Washington and Grant streets. Admission for “grown ups” was a quarter and kids were admitted for 15 cents.
Horse racing on the beach with side betting was a major attraction when the fair was held in Coronado in the Armory Hall at Fourth and Ash. Julian was reported to be a major exhibitor of fruits, grain and minerals. Interest in the fair was manifested when San Diego held it in Balboa Park in 1915 and it was suggested that 100 acres be set aside for building a racetrack. In subsequent years, Oceanside presented the fair. Media accounts had the fair being in Escondido from 1909 through 1912 then again in Balboa Park in the 1920s.
The opportunity for the fair to be located in a permanent location occurred in 1933 when Proposition 33 allowed pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. The 22nd District Agricultural Association, a dormant entity, was reactivated then for the purpose of presenting the San Diego County Fair.
Governor Merriam came to Del Mar and placed a corner stone at the Mission Tower Plaza declaring the fair a major California Exposition. It became a construction project for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) with buildings designed by architects Sam and Joe Hamill, who interpreted a mission revival-style design.
Fall dates of Oct. 8 through 18 dates were selected for the fair’s first run. It was the start of the rainy season and for most of the 11 days it poured, flooding the grounds. But the attractions were not dampened by the weather. Spanish Fiesta Girls performed in “dazzling” costumes and Bunny Dryden, world’s champion high-wire walker went from the Midway to the Grandstand on a single wire 110 feet above the ground without a net. There was a merry-go-round and ferris wheel; a “hoochie-koochie” sideshow featured “Little Egypt” who promised to “bare all” inside a tent for a dime, with a fireworks show in front of the grandstand that ended the well attended and sunny first day. The following year the race-track opened, and the county fair’s run was scheduled in the summer, starting the annual trend that remains today.
More history on the San Diego County Fair, the racetrack, and the fairgrounds, is included in the book, Images of America: “Del Mar Fairgrounds” [Arcadia, 2008] co-authored by Diane Y. Welch, B. Paul Welch and the 22nd DAA. Meet Diane and Paul Welch at the Del Mar Fairgrounds at the Theme Exhibit Gift Shop location where they will be doing a book signing on Friday, July 1, from noon-3 p.m.