Merced County Times Newspaper
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The Story Behind The Wonderful Merced County Fair

Merced County has held a fair every year since 1891 with the exception of 1917 and 1918 during World War I, 1936 because of financial issues, 1943 to 1945, World War II and 2020 and 2021 because of COVID 19. The first Merced County Fair, which represented both Merced and Mariposa Counties started out in a pavilion on 18th St on Sept. 2, 1891.

The beginning of the Merced County Fair, as we know it today, was a two day event held on Sept. 14 & 15, 1929 in the old Municipal Baseball Park, which is know called Applegate Park. W.C. Woxberg was named as the first fair manager and for three years the fair was sponsored by the Merchant’s Association and included a rodeo and a small livestock show. In 1931, the fair moved to its current location G Street, now 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Unfortunately in 1936 the fair was in bad financial shape and was unable to hold a fair. However, local businesses pooled together funds to get the up and running again in 1937. The 1937 fair turned out to be very successful and included a parade, a three day horse racing program, livestock show, farm exhibits and a Hollywood revue. In 1938, to help the revenue stream the fair started charging 25 cents for general admission with kids under 12 free. By 1941, the fair was a very successful financially and a new pavilion was built and the fair had an unheard of crowd of over 18,000 attendees.

Shortly after the 1941 fair, Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941 and the Federal government stepped in and leased the fairgrounds. The government had made the unfortunate decision to use the fairgrounds as an assembly center. The center opened on May 6, 1942 and closed Sept. 15, 1942. More than 5,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry were ordered to report to the Merced assembly center for relocation. Most of those detained were taken by train to the Amache internment camp in Granada, Colorado.

After the Assembly Center closed, the fairgrounds were turned over to the 4th Air Service Area Command for supplies and training until 1945. Known as Camp Merced it was used as the headquarters for and to support the

Merced Army Air Field and its auxiliary fields that were used as training bases for new pilots needed for World War II. The 802nd Chemical Company and the 1914th Ordnance Ammunition Company were also trained at Camp Merced before deployment to the Pacific War.

Since that time the Merced Fairgrounds has been used for many purposes. It has been home to a county library, fire station, preschool program, temporarily housed the Leontine Gracey Elementary School while the new school construction was being completed. It was also the “birthplace” of Merced College and home of the McNamara Museum prior to it being moved to the Old Courthouse Building in 1977. The facilities have been the site of thousands of parties, fund raisers, wedding receptions, banquets, dinners, dances, quinceneras, proms, car races, rodeos and recently taken over by Cal Fire as a staging area for major fires in the area.

Since its inception the Merced County Fair has been the biggest annual event in our community. Starting from a simple one-to-two day event to now an exciting five days. The fair features many competitive exhibits where local citizens can show their skills in areas such as, cooking, sewing, art, photography, welding, gardening, wood working and the largest and best livestock show in the area. Of course, there is also a carnival featuring some great rides and many games and the always present fair food and long lasting memories. The fair normally has over 70,000 attendees during its five day run.

The fairgrounds are owned, operated and governed by the 35th District Argricultural Association an institution of the state of California. The fairgrounds is home of the Merced County Fair and a wide variety of community serving events and activities. With an 85 acre facility and 51,000 square feet of public gathering space along with parking for more than 5,000 vehicles, the fair has a large impact on our community. Fairs provide many non-profit and charity organizations with the opportunity to raise a substantial portion of their annual budgets through their fundraising booths and activities. Fairs are a reflection of their community and help to celebrate its history and heritage. Fairs are governed by a nine member Board of Directors appointed by the Governor and have a full time fair manager and staff to oversee the day-to-day operations.

The local economic impact of the fair is huge. The latest California Department of Food and Agriculture figures shows that the Merced Fairgrounds generates approximately $23 million in spending alone benefiting the local economy. The equivalent 238 jobs was created by the spending by the fairgrounds, its support businesses and its attendees. The labor income from these additional jobs was around $7.3 million. Numerous local businesses are big sponsors of the fair. They are all listed on the Merced County Fair website. Valley Childrens Healthcare is the main fair sponsor and they pay for all of the children under 12 years of age that attend the fair.

Most of the building on the fairgrounds were built in the early 1940s by the WPA and the need for upgrades is apparent. There are currently several upgrade projects that are in progress at the fairgrounds. The Pavilion is getting a new air conditioning system and in the plans are a new kitchen for the Yosemite Hall (Commerce Bldg.) and air conditioning and upgraded restrooms for the Half Dome Hall (Exhibit Bldg), along with several others projects.

Helping with these upgrades is the affiliated “Friends of The Merced County Fair”. The Friends help to raise money for the fair and the needed projects and upgrades. The Friends are a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. If anyone is interested in getting involved with the Friends go to the Merced County Fair website for information and become a member. There are numerous perks available for all those who become members.

The dates for the 2023 Merced County Fair are June 7-11, 2023. There is free entertainment at the outdoor theatre every evening and nightly events in the grandstands for all to enjoy. Come out and enjoy a fun, entertaining and safe activity for the whole family.

Jim Cunningham and Flip Hassett are both retired, but they remain active in Merced County as community advocates, local history buffs and photographers.

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