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Jet Fighters and Holstein Cows : Old and New Create a Magnetic Mixture at Fair

July 20, 1986|PETER BAKER | Times Staff Writer

On the right is an Air Force T-38 Talon jet fighter plane, 46 feet long, 25-foot wingspan and capable of traveling faster than 800 miles per hour.

Barely 20 feet to the left is a Holstein dairy cow with some pretty impressive statistics of her own: 6 tons of hay, 3 tons of grain and 10,500 gallons of water consumed each year in order to produce 1,918 gallons of milk.

The children skipping wide-eyed from one exhibit to the other are as fascinated with the bovine as they are with the airplane--after all, chances are that many have never seen either before.

The Orange County Fair, which closes out its 94th year today, has become a study in contrasts and a model of the modern suburban fair. From high-tech wizardry and modern carnival games to old-fashioned embroidery, livestock and cake-decorating contests, the fair has struck a comfortable compromise of the old and the new.

"There's all kinds of things for everyone to see," said fair general manager Norb Bartosik. "It's a great potpourri, a little bit of everything."

First Fair in 1890

Things haven't always been so diverse. The first Orange County Fair, held in southwest Santa Ana in 1890, was a small, rural gathering of neighbors for a few exhibits and a horse race. Cows, horses, sheep and pigs remained the primary attractions through the turn of the century when a small "carnival of products" was added.

But those 19th-Century founders could hardly have imagined the products to be offered at the fair of 1986: Don Johnson T-shirts and inflatable space shuttles, computerized portraits and an international food bazaar.

On the walkways a four-foot-tall toy robot wanders around greeting small children, while over across from the roller-coaster, teen-agers throw darts at a Boy George poster.

"This is quite a bit different from the way it used to be," said Manley Knight, 76, who attended his first fairs in the 1920s, "but Orange County isn't agricultural anymore either. I don't even know why we really have the fairs anymore, but it meets the needs. I guess that's what's important. . . . "In the old days I used to trap coyotes around here. But you can't do that here anymore, so how do you compare (60 years ago with today)?"

Rural Emphasis

Manning the Orange County Historical Society's booth at the fair, Knight and his wife, Lavinia, 75--who have lived in Fullerton off and on since World War I--said the fair's evolution over the years has paralleled the county's growth. Just as a high demand for real estate squeezed out Knight and his fellow orange grove farmers, a high demand for modern entertainment has pushed aside much of the rural emphasis.

But the Knights are content to live with the passing of old ways.

"You can't go back," said Lavinia Knight. "This is the way it is now and it's just as interesting now as it used to be. Things are different, sure, but still interesting."

Most fair-goers seemed to think so: The record attendance figures this year indicate that the mix of old and new is a successful blend. Last year, 362,907 people visited the 160-acre fairgrounds, and organizers expect to top 400,000 this year.

"The fair is a combination of things," said spokeswoman Jill Lloyd. "We still have all the traditional things--the livestock, the needlework, the cake contests--because that's what people expect to see at a county fair. You can't see these things at Disneyland. On the other hand, the fair has become a real entertainment center too."

Indeed, fair demographics show that the emphasis has changed in recent years. According to a survey of last year's crowds, the games and rides are the most popular attraction, followed by food and then the exhibits.

That fits in with the "profile" fair-goer, who according to officials is married, 25 to 34 years old, a college-educated professional, earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

Kids can ride the ponies or the spider-like "Orbiter" ride with its "Star Wars" backdrop. They can wash a pig or get their handwriting analyzed. They can sit through a parade of goats or a high-tech laser show.

Remembers Dirt Roads

"When I moved out here, some of the streets were still dirt roads," observed Barbara Johnston, 49, of Huntington Beach. "You can see how it's grown up and I guess everything else has too."

Mary De, who was painting plaster cows in the Home Arts and Crafts Building, said the current fair offers a good diversity.

"There's just a lot of real different things," said De, 36, of Santa Ana. "I think they mix well and I would never do away with anything they have here."

There were some visitors, however, who were glad to discover they could still find the types of country displays they grew up with.

Home Crafts

"It's so amazing that there are so many home crafts," said Betty McGill, 65, who came from Santa Monica for the fair. "It's still alive. I used to do a lot of sewing and it's wonderful they're still doing it today."

Sitting under a tree munching hamburgers, her husband agreed that they were pleasantly surprised by their first outing to Orange County's fair.

"You think that's all changed," said Frank McGill, 65, who was particularly interested in the hogs and sheep, "but you come to the fair and you find out that people are still doing it all. And doing it very well, too."

As livestock manager Jim Bailey pointed out, the fair--whose theme of "Jump on Over" is based on the cow jumping over the moon in the nursery rhyme--wouldn't be a fair without the cows.

"I think milking a cow brings everything into perspective, what life is all about," he said. "It sure is a lot different from sitting on the freeway."

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