In 1854, the State Legislature created the State Agricultural Fair, a traveling annual fair. Its purpose was to encourage agriculture and horticulture in California.
The first of these annual fairs was held in San Francisco. The second (1855) and third (1856) annual fairs were held in Sacramento. In 1857, Stockton hosted the fourth annual state fair.
That was enough to boost the morale of the citizens of San Joaquin County that they wasted no time in taking the first serious steps toward the launching an agricultural fair for the county. Three years later, on Aug. 28, 1860, the “first permanently located county fair in California” opened with much fanfare in Stockton.
The horticultural and mechanical displays were contained in a 60x200 feet pavilion erected on Hunter Square. Larger displays were situated outside this exhibit hall.
On the second floor of the Courthouse, in an area 50x75 feet, were the fine arts exhibit, plus “ladies’ handicraft in worsted wool, embroidery, quilting” and other items in the “household industry.” On the walls of the Courthouse chamber were pictures and paintings, drawings, engravings, and daguerreotype photographs. Also on exhibition were 200 to 300 pounds of rock as well as minerals and copper ore mainly from Calaveras County.
Other articles exhibited at that first ever county fair came by chartered riverboat from the Sacramento State Fair, and from San Francisco by steamers of the California Steam Navigation Company.
The day after the opening of the fair, Stockton for the very first time was illuminated by gas. All stores in town, with the exception of saloons, were closed.
All that and more about the genesis of the San Joaquin County Fair are chronicled in the book “OUR FAIR 1860-2000: An Illustrated History of the San Joaquin County Fair,” by Luisa Nella who, in real life, is Joyce L Boda. The book has Luisa Nella as the author, but the author autographs the book by her real name and writing the initials aka before her pen name. Copies of the soft-bound 241-page coffee-table tome are among the books sold in the gift shop of the Manteca Historical Museum at $21.50 each.
Another tidbit from the early days of the California State Fair explains that the last of the moveable state fairs was held in Marysville. After that, Sacramento became the permanent site of the annual event.
Stockton was fourth largest city in state
Adding to the success of the first San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton was the fact Stockton at that time was the fourth largest city in the Golden State in the 1850s, thanks to the discovery of gold in the foothills. Today it is the 13th largest.
With the $1,000 from the Board of Supervisors, and $500 from the Stockton City Council, fair directors in May 1860 bought 60 acres of land at the corner of Sharps Lane and South Street – now the corner of Airport Way and Charter Way – for $15 an acre from the Captain Charles M. Weber, the founder of Stockton. Weber, in turn, donated an additional 60 acres to the city with the proviso that that it be “devoted to the fostering of agricultural, horticultural, and mechanical pursuits.”
The fair directors also lost no time in building “a one-mile race track where trotting horses competed – not far from where race horses now gallop at fair time.”
Among the animals on exhibit was a Durham bull named Fourth Duke of Northumbberland owned by J.D. Patterson of New York which was shipped to Stockton for $800. According to the book, the bull was valued at $5,000 and weighed 2,400 pounds. It was already a winner of 14 exhibition prizes in the East when it made its appearance on the West Coast at the first county fair.
Other animals displayed at the county’s inaugural fair were 87 horses, 18 cattle and calves, 29 hogs, and 34 sheep.
Many of the names of exhibitors in all of the agriculture, horticulture and other categories through the ensuing decades of the county fair hail from the South County area. Manteca, Ripon and Lathrop were also well represented in the annual Theme Girl contest with the winner serving as the “official hostess” of the fair throughout its roughly two-week duration. It was Miss Manteca Suzanne Lasiter who held that honor when the fair officers decided to discontinue the tradition on the belief that the “queen contests had fallen from favor and were not as popular as before,” and that “the money and time spent on a theme girl event could be better channeled to other fair areas.”
Instead, it was decided that a theme girl from each community would serve as fair hostess on “her community’s day.”
Lasiter was not the only Mantecan who was chosen as fair Theme Girl. In 1980, Susie De Geiso became the last-minute stand-in for Miss Manteca Lenna Martz (Lewis) who dropped out of the competition “due to employment conflict.”
In 1977, fair Theme Girl Alyce Machado of Manteca not only was the chosen official hostess for the event. She was also the first-place winner in the bull chip chucking contest. The “chuck” she threw “sailed 78 feet, 2 inches” which qualified her to the 1978 California State Bull-chip Chucking Contest held in Placerville. The men’s winner was Dave Fields of Stockton who bested 31 male chuckers with an official record of 179 feet, 8 inches. The cow chips were collected from cattle ranches in the area. They had to be in dried form, according to the rules, and measured 6 inches in diameter.
Book lists winners in 4-H, FFA shows
Anyone who was a winner in the 4-H and FFA animal shows, or in any of the exhibit and contest categories featured at every annual county fair will find their names and/or photographs on the pages of this book. In 1981, for example, Tyler Hammond of Circle M 4-H in Manteca won top dairy showman. Kevin Hawes of Ripon 4-H that same year was a leading showman in the dairy-goats category.
Members of the community who supported the fair in other ways are also well represented in the book. A photograph taken during the 1984 fair showed 10-year-old Joe Schallberger of Tokay Colony 4-H who received $1,800 from Chris Crom of East Star Dairy in Manteca. The money was for the young 4-Her’s 1984 Champion Replacement heifer. Also in the picture were Crom’s grinning two young daughters.
In 1977, Bill Andreeta of the Manteca Meat Market (now Sunny Valley Smoked Meats) paid $2.25 per pound for the year’s FFA reserve champion swine showed by Steve Duncan, 19, of the Manteca FFA.
In the 1993 county fair, Arnold Rothlin and Elizabeth Laffranchini, both of Manteca, vied with three other competitors in the hand-milking championship event. The day’s winners were Tracy dairyman Danny Glover in the men’s division who pulled 13.7 pounds of milk in two minutes from four cows, while Christy Erbe of Stockton claimed the trophy in the women’s division by milking 5.2 pounds.
When the fair’s schedule was moved from August to June, some 4-H and FFA parents protested saying the June dates would conflict with their children’s schooling. This year, the county fair will move from its June schedule to September 20-30.
Copies of the book, “Our Fair 1860-2000” at $21.50 each, can be purchased at the museum’s gift shop during regular business hours: Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m., and Thursdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. The museum is located at 600 W. Yosemite Avenue.