For long-time Ventura residents, the Ventura County Fair has become a staple of local life. But lovers of the fried Twinkies, classic rock concerts and summer fireworks probably wouldn’t even have recognized the fair in its infancy.
Rather than photography exhibits and carnival rides, the first fair in 1874 featured — in what is now the heart of downtown Ventura — bullfights, cockfights, horse races and nightly grand balls. It was an extension of the county’s San Miguel Day celebrations, a fall harvest festival, and within the next few years, it began to focus more on local agriculture and horticulture.

In 1891, the fair moved from Ventura to Hueneme, where a new racetrack and grandstand had been built. But if anything about Ventura has stayed constant over the years, it’s that we like our fair to stay put — right here in the city. Though many felt Hueneme had “gotten away with the prize,” the fair returned permanently to Ventura after E.P. Foster donated 62 beachfront acres to become Seaside Park in a deed that said the land must be reserved for public use only.

Although the fairgrounds have developed over the years, the fair has also resisted change on many occasions, opting to try to preserve its local agricultural heritage rather than become more commercialized.

As Krista E. Paulson wrote in the Journal of Ventura County History, “The fair provided an annual reaffirmation of the county’s agricultural heritage and its unique character in an increasingly urban region.”

And in the future, the Fair Foundation wants to continue that tradition: it is proposing to build a state-of-the-art, 40,000-square-foot livestock center to house animals and host educational events and competitions.

Seaside Park has been a fixture of county life for more than a hundred years. During the last several decades, it has served as the place for locals and visitors alike to experience a variety of events, from betting on horse races to the county science fair to the Johnny Cash Festival, all of which continue to grow in popularity year by year.

And according to Barbara Quaid, CEO of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, the fairgrounds will continue to provide new and fun experiences for generations to come.

“Our vision for the Fairgrounds is to create a warm, welcoming place for kids from ages one to 100 to display their creations, relieve memories and create new ones,” she said in an e-mail.

But the fairgrounds are more than just a place to see a fun show or an interesting event. The fairgrounds, especially the Ventura County Fair, play an integral role in thousands of people’s lives and create everlasting memories for those come for adventure and a change of pace.

Heart strings
“I’ve been going to the fair ever since the ’20s,” remembers 94-year-old Leo Vanoni of Somis. “My dad and mother would fix a lunch — I remember that big box — and we had an old 1919 pickup, Dodge, and it had screens on the sides and the top. And they threw us in there and we’d go down there. In those days, you knew almost everybody that came to the fair. The fair was just not even half as big as it is now”

2Since then, the fair has become a huge part of his life and his family’s. In 1956, he and his wife, Rita, started Uncle Leo’s Barn, where people can get up close with typical barnyard animals and their offspring. For many fairgoers, it may be their once-a-year opportunity to see a lamb, pig or goat.

“It used to be that parents would take their kids to either grandpa’s farm or Uncle so-and-so’s farm every year, but fewer and fewer people have farms. So now they can always come every year to Uncle Leo’s Barn, and have an experience of visiting the farm,” he says, describing the barn as his “pride and joy.” He still comes to the barn every day of the fair to sit and talk with the children who visit, though over the years, his children and grandchildren have stepped in to help run the fair staple.

“There was a great incident one year,” he said. “We don’t like to have [the kids] stick their arm clear through [the fence] because when they yank it out, they get scratched. And this little kid kept sticking his hand in and touching a heifer, and so [my son] Charles went around and asked him not to. Well, the lady said, he’s blind. So Charles took him around, and put him in the pen with that heifer.”

“It just tugged at your heart, this kid,” Charles said. “He laid down on [the heifer] and felt it.”

First priority — good times

Over the years, the fair has gained some other hard-core fans. In 1987, one couple even got married on the merry-go-round at the fair. And for 32-year-old Ventura resident Phil Rhone, the fair is one of the greatest places on earth.

“I’ll probably live here the rest of my life, and, guaranteed, I’ll go to the fair the rest of my life,” he says. “I really like the rides, I like the food, I like the crowd. I love how it smells: cotton candy, funnel cake, whatever they’re cooking.”

It is his personal goal to make it to the fair every year, and he hopes to go every day. And though he admits it’s an expensive goal, he won’t let anything get in his way.

3“One year, I was dating this girl — we were about to move in together, and I was saving up money for the deposit and first and last month’s rent. The fair had come, and I went every single night, had a blast, hung out with my friends. And by the end of the two weeks of the fair, all the money was gone. I spent it all at the fair. I said, ‘Sorry, babe, I just love the fair that much.’ ”

For Cecilia Johnston, a 50-year-old Ventura native, the biggest thing that has changed about the fair since her childhood is its date. It was traditionally a fall festival until 1987, when it was moved to August in an attempt to attract more visitors with nicer weather. “I liked the idea of kids getting the day off,” she says about having the first day of the fair in October, which she described as a sort of citywide festival day.

“It was the middle of the week, and everybody had the day off on Opening Day. You were either in the parade or you watched the parade, and you saw all your friends. It was just so festive. You knew everybody in the parade, and you’re waving to everybody, and you’d walk over and all the gates would be open. It would be absolutely free, and you’d go in and hang out with your friends, and people would go on the zipper and throw up. It was a big to-do.”

Though for many, the parade is no longer so large a component, the fair in itself is still the place to see everyone you know in Ventura.

“If you grew up around here,” Rhone says, “there’s always forced awkward situations you run into, and you see people you haven’t seen in 10 years. You run into your friends’ parents; you run into your parents. It’s like a level playing field: everyone has to be nice because you’re in a public place.”

Suz Montgomery, who has been going to the fair since she moved to the area in 1981, says it’s a part of the “Ventura experience.”

“It’s a family affair, even if it’s tacky,” she says. “The best thing about the fair to me, you grab a beer and sit back and watch the people. It’s an unending source of entertainment.”

But despite the introduction of the carnival rides and commercial exhibits, the local agricultural aspect of the Ventura County Fair has remained a huge draw over the years.


All about 4H and Future Farmers

The Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4H and the agriculture and horticulture buildings serve to showcase the agricultural heritage the county was founded on.

Dennis Jenks, a fourth-generation Ojai resident, says his favorite memories of the fair come from when he was a 4H member showing horses and raising sheep.

“We’d get a trailer and sleep in the barns by our sheep. It was a wide-eyed, wonderful place to be.” He also took advantage of the fact that the Ventura County Fair is one of the few fairs in California held next to the ocean. “The most fun I had was riding my horse in the surf. We would take them out on the racetrack, and then cool them off in the ocean.”

“It was an authentic way to get together with people,” he says. “The fair was meant to display what Ventura used to be known for: agriculture and oil. It was a familial community.”

4The Ventura County Fair is definitely a family affair for the Camarillo-born Maureen Cottingham — she met her husband as a teenager on the Junior Fair Board.

“Each year, new members are paired with older members, and there was an official letter that was written that Adam was supposed to be my partner, and call me and make sure I was having a fun time for the first year of joining Junior Fair Board,” explained Cottingham. “He never called me.

“He was always the cool guy, sitting across the table in his little swim outfit — he was a swimmer — and I never talked to him. Halfway through, maybe five meetings before the fair, I was riding for a horse show down at the fairgrounds. I walked in, in my boots and spurs; I had just gotten off my horse. All of a sudden, he would not stop talking to me. We got in trouble all during that meeting; we were inseparable. We got in trouble for too much PDA in our Junior Fair Board shirts.

“The story continues, because we were raising steers: I was in 4H and he was in FFA. When I first got my steer, the steer was crazy, out of control, threw me into the fence a bunch of times. I couldn’t handle it, so we knew some kid in Santa Paula FFA was looking for a new steer. My dad and I took it to Bob Young, the FFA director in Santa Paula. It turns out, Adam was the one that got my steer. So when we were showing, my new steer was a beautiful blue roan steer. Adam got reserve champion for FFA and I got reserve champ for 4H, and we both went in the final round to determine the grand champion. He got reserve champion for entire fair with the steer I actually gave him.”

Though they now live in Sonoma, she still feels strongly about the Ventura County Fair. “It’s my childhood memory, and one of my favorite things growing up,” she says. “But it’s very depressing that I haven’t been to the fair in years. I always make a mental note whenever the first week in August hits, because I know it’s happening.”

According to City Councilman Jim Monahan, a member of the livestock committee for 40 years, the livestock auction once even gained national attention.

“We had a gentleman one time — he owned the property up [Ventura] Avenue — he had obviously had too much to drink, and he went to the restroom. When he came back, they were selling the Grand Champion lamb. Something like $125 was the next bidding price, and he said ‘125! I can afford that!’ and he bid on it — but it was 125 dollars a pound, so he paid the most anyone had ever paid for a lamb at the time.

“It had such notoriety, it was on the Johnny Carson show — they took it down to Burbank in a limousine and had this lamb on the show.”

But, he says, one of the best parts of the fair requires some good timing. “Try to be on the Ferris wheel right at the time you’re at the top when they start the fireworks,” he suggests. “There’s kind of a trick, to try to get in line just right when you’re on the Ferris wheel. You’ll be at the top right when they start the fireworks.”

Each year, between 200,000 and 300,000 people visit the fair, coming from all over the county and beyond to create their own memories, and this year will be no different. For Ventura County residents, the fair is a fact of life, and will be for years to come.

“Every August, that’s where you’ll find us,” says Charles Vanoni, echoing the sentiment of many locals, for whom a Ventura without the fair isn’t Ventura at all.   

This year’s fair runs from Aug. 4 to Aug. 15, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., except on Senior Day, Aug. 10, when it will open at 10 a.m. The Ventura County Fairgrounds is located at 10 W. Harbor Blvd. For more information, go to www.venturacountyfair.org.

shaunacyferro@gmail.com