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BLUE-RIBBON DAYS : Traditional Skills and Modern Thrills Make the Orange County Fair a Real Winner

July 18, 1991|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to the Times Orange County Edition.

Looking back at a century of fairs in Orange County shows that, while some things have changed, the basic premise remains the same.

Kids still raise pigs and cows for show and auction. There are still contests for the best blueberry jam and the nicest needlework. Fair-goers can still win a prize by knocking down a stack of bottles on the midway.

Sure, the county has grown a lot in the last few decades, with development squeezing out the last vestiges of the area's agricultural past. But fair crowds have grown just as quickly and, if anything, interest in the fair's traditional focus on exhibits of livestock and farm products has risen.

Jim Bailey, who has headed the fair's livestock division for 32 years, says the number of entries has "held on surprisingly well" during his tenure. Meanwhile, visitor interest has grown too, as county residents have found themselves further and further removed from their agrarian roots.

"People like to come show their kids that carrots grow in the ground," Bailey says. "Kids think carrots come from the store. They think milk comes from cartons, not from cows. One of the services we provide is to dispel those myths."

A couple of years back, Bailey says, only a few animals were on exhibit one day as the displays were being changed from market to breeding animals, and the fair was deluged with complaints: "People let us know that (the livestock) was one of the main reasons they came to the fair."

Meanwhile, interest in other competitive exhibits keeps going up too, with the Home Arts Building logging more than 2,800 entries. Such traditional skills as cooking, baking and needlework are not dead, apparently.

Of course, there are some changes. Wine judging, introduced 15 years ago, is now one of the biggest fair competitions. Entertainment, namely rock acts, has been a growing part of the fair's draw.

Charting the history of the fair, and the changes along the way, is the full-time job of Lynda Benice, who is in charge of Centennial Hall this year, with exhibits by Orange County historical societies.

The fair marks its centennial next year, but the early years of the event are obscured by time. For instance, the year of the first Orange County Fair, at the long-defunct Santa Ana Race Track (agricultural exhibits were held in the city's opera house), is alternately given in different historical accounts as 1891 and 1892.

That early event lasted only a few years, according to one account. So far the research has found a number of events in different locations in the following decades, but their relationship to the earlier Orange County Fair is still unclear in some cases. There was an Anaheim Carnival in 1911, a county fair in Huntington Beach from 1919 to 1921, and Anaheim's California Valencia Orange Show beginning in 1921. There were interruptions for World Wars I and II, and for an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease in 1924.

A 1926 program for the Orange Show described three exhibition tents: one for the citrus displays, one for an industrial exhibit (refrigerators, sewing machines and the like) and one for a first-time automobile show. "This is not including a monster joy zone in which varied entertainment of high moral character is offered to the visitor," the program adds.

The history of the Orange County Fair is well-documented from 1949, when it moved to its current location on the site of a former air station. Although the crowds have grown, the essence of the fair has changed little.

A quick rundown of this year's events and attractions:

* Carnival and midway. More than 50 rides are offered, with a few additions to past carnivals. The "Kamikaze" is like a traditional hammer, "only it's about 20 times bigger," according to a ride organizer. The "kiddie carnival" will be expanded with several new rides for younger thrill-seekers.

* Entertainment. Strolling musicians, magicians, clowns, comedians and puppeteers are part of the daily entertainment on the grounds. The fair's concert series features Donny Osmond, Jan and Dean, Elvin Bishop, a '60s revue, the Little River Band, Richie Havens, Air Supply and others (see accompanying story, Page 10). The concerts are free with fair admission.

* Traditional competitions. Exhibit areas include gems and minerals, photography, fine arts, fish and hobbies, home arts and crafts, 4-H and FFA projects and a flower and garden show.

* Craftsman Village. Artists and craftspeople show and sell their work.

* Wine Pavilion. Tastings of commercial wine competition winners.

* Centennial Hall. Historical exhibits.

* Centennial Farm. A small working farm as it might have looked 100 years ago.

* Livestock exhibits. Animals on display include rabbits, Pygmy goats, poultry, llamas and Watusi cattle.

* Equestrian events: Morgan horse show (July 19-21), miniature horse show (July 20-21), hunters and jumpers horse show (July 24-25), Western horse show (July 26-28) and an Andalusian horse show (July 27-28).

* Grandstand Arena events: sidecar and quad races (July 18), motorcycle speedway (July 19), motorcycle stunt show (July 20), bike and skateboard show (July 21-25), and a championship rodeo (July 26-28).

What: Orange County Fair.

When: Through July 28. Noon to midnight Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to midnight Friday through Sunday (and Thursday, July 25).

Where: Orange County Fairgrounds, Fair Drive and Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to either the Harbor Boulevard or Fairview Road exit. Head south to Fair Drive and left to the main entrance.

Wherewithal: Admission is $2 to $5, and free for kids under 6. Parking is $3 (free if there are four or more in the vehicle).

Where to call: (714) 751-3247.

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