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Fair Readies Down-Home Delights

August 17, 1989|SHANNA GOWENLOCK | Times Staff Writer

Last-minute preparations went more smoothly than usual, a record number of county residents entered their dairy goats, pomegranate jelly, patchwork quilts and homemade beer, and there has been hardly a peep from the Save The Fair Committee.

As a result, this year's Ventura County Fair promises to be one of the smoothest, most successful yet, said Jeremy Ferris, who after five years as fair general manager plans to leave at the end of October.

"When I first came on board I gave a commitment of three to five years, and this is five years," he said. "It's just time to move on."

Preparations for the 114th annual fair, which started yesterday and will run through Aug. 27, were unmarred by a two-year-old controversy over what some critics saw as big-city commercialization of a homespun tradition.

The furor was touched off in late 1987 when Ferris dismissed longtime home arts superintendent Edna Mills over an apparent personality conflict.

The move was seen by some as an affront to cherished homespun values and as a step toward what critics called commercialization of the fair.

The Save The Fair Committee circulated petitions calling for Mills' reinstatement and Ferris' resignation. The group also demanded that the fair return to an October schedule. Ferris changed the fair's schedule to August in an attempt to draw a larger crowd.

Richard Henniger, of Oak View, who led the committee's efforts," acknowledged that "we did our thing and crawled somewhat back into the woodwork."

Mills was not reinstated and the fair remains an August event, but Henniger said the 300-member Save The Fair group scored some significant victories.

"Overall," he said, "we do feel that the fair has in a sense come back to the people."

He credited the group with defeating the city of Ventura's plans last November to contribute $20 million toward a 120,000-square-foot event center at the fairgrounds for concerts, trade shows and conventions.

"That wasn't going to benefit the people here, except maybe some hotels and restaurants," he said. "I think we have made people stop and think about where the fair was going."

He said he and some other Save The Fair activists are writing to Gov. George Deukmejian, asking that fair volunteers be appointed to the next vacancies on the fair board.

"What we want is a grass-roots fair," he said, "something that is run by the people who live here, for the people who live here."

Ferris defended the fair's commercial elements, saying the fair can accommodate so many exhibits and entries only because of its commercial success. The event costs $2 million.

Don Dufau, president of the Ventura County Fair board of directors, said, "We're kind of pinching ourselves, everything's back to normal and we haven't had the problems that we'd had the last two years in terms of the Save The Fair Committee."

Dufau said the board plans to hire a new general manager by the time Ferris leaves and is looking for a consulting firm to conduct the search.

One of the reasons the 12-day fair retains a traditional flavor despite the carnival rides and salespeople hawking Jacuzzis and kitchen utensils is because of its more than 2,000 volunteers, Ferris said.

"The fair couldn't go on without the volunteers," he said. "It would be horrendously expensive to have paid people come in and do all that they do, and it would not be as natural a coming-from-the-heart kind of thing."

As Ferris walked through the grounds two days before the fair's opening day on Wednesday, he pointed out some fair highlights and greeted volunteers, all of whom seemed to know him on sight.

"This fair is a real traditional fair," he said.

"There are some that have become entertainment shows or just commercial shows, and the backbone of this one are the exhibits of the people in the county, and we bend over backward to keep it that way," he said, strolling through one of his favorite attractions, the Home Arts Building.

"The culture of Ventura County is in this room," he said, gesturing toward rows of handcrafted items such as crocheted doll's dresses, gowns, Christmas ornaments and quilts in a myriad of colors and designs.

Further down, a long table strewn with the remnants of homemade pies looked as if a Boy Scout troop had descended upon it just before a month-long camping trip where the only food was to be tubers and tree bark.

The judges had mauled the culinary creations--poking, prodding and testing them for flakiness, texture and flavor, and awarding ribbons to the best. But because many fair volunteers are more than happy to dispatch the rejects, losing entries usually manage to find their way to more appreciative eaters on the fairgrounds, Ferris said.

"This whole area just smells great," Ferris said, inhaling deeply.

In the floriculture building, volunteer supervisor Barbara Schneider sweet-talked Ferris into a home-baked confection swiped from the baked-goods table. "Occupational hazard," Ferris said, as he munched agreeably.

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