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A lifetime of fun: Looking back on the 136 year history of the Santa Cruz County Fair

Presented by Santa Cruz County Fair
Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds
The Santa Cruz County Fair returns September 14 - 18, 2022.
(Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds)

Long ago (1885 or 1887 depending on which historian is reminiscing), home-loving and farm-loving Santa Cruz County citizens combined their first efforts to produce what has become the Santa Cruz County Fair and Horse Show.

The Fair and Horse Show has been at its present location along Hecker Pass Road (the present East Lake Avenue) since 1941. On October 16, 1941 the first agricultural county fair opened in Folger’s Skating Rink, near the plaza in the center of Watsonville. Over the stage, spelled out in letters made of apples, was the sign “Pajaro Valley Products”.

Numerous farm exhibits displayed the reasons why Santa Cruz County, was and still is one of the most famous agricultural counties in the West: Bountiful food products, livestock, poultry, birds, flowers and handiwork competing for attention with a horse show and entertainment.

Beginning in 1910, the well-remembered Apple Annuals began as a central part of the fairs, sometimes held in Watsonville’s Civic Auditorium; other years in Santa Cruz and various parts of the county. At the first Apple Annual, California’s Governor James N. Gillett made good his earlier promise to come to Watsonville if its citizens would bake him an apple pie. On October 9, 1910, they presented to him an apple pie three feet in diameter, with a wooden spoon big enough to do it justice.

The approach of World War I brought the Apple Annuals to a close, along with a whole way of life. Then in 1930, horse racing pari-mutuel tax returns from betting at the track began to be used to support district and county fairs, as well as agriculture colleges and agriculture research in California. These state funds were made available to help finance a permanent site for the Fair. California appropriated $5,000 in 1940 toward the $8,500 purchase price for the 105 acres of the Peter Petersen tract on Hecker Pass Road, and the Agriculture District drew the other $3,500 from its treasury.

  • Event
    Santa Cruz County Fair 2022
    Enjoy fun for the whole family at the Santa Cruz County Fair, from September 14 - 18, off Highway 152 in Watsonville, CA. Tickets are available for purchase now.
    Wednesday, September 14, 2022 - 12:00 PM

In May 1941, the deal was finalized. Barns, sheds and outbuildings were cleaned up. It was doubted that the fair could be held at the new location that very year, but it did open on October 16. It took an estimated 300 persons, toiling all day long, to get the booths built, exhibits placed, electricity installed and everything ready to function smoothly.

The county’s horse-loving culture kicked off the new era in Santa Cruz County Fairs with a remarkable barbecue on Sunday afternoon, October 5th. Virtually everyone present arrived on horseback or in horse-drawn vehicles, including hay wagons. Riders came from Santa Cruz and as far as Gilroy, Salinas and Hollister. Three hundred people gathered in the new 120' x 340' horse arena for an informal dedication of the grounds.

A pie contest, luncheon, Chinese drum corps performance, the first of daily stage attractions including Patrick’s Shows and mounted drill by Ft. Ord’s 75th field artillery helped entertain. Two thousand people paid admissions - 25% above opening day the previous year in Watsonville’s Civic Auditorium. Total attendance for the four days was 13,000!

Plans had been approved for contributions from the county for fencing, grading and a water system, to be matched by state money; but Pearl Harbor intervened, delaying fair improvements for another seven years. By 1945, plans were resumed, and in 1947 a half million-dollar long-range improvement program began with grading the grounds, construction of a racetrack and paving of roads. In 1951, that program was continued with completion of the first permanent exhibit building and the poultry building. Other buildings have been added gradually ever since, following a state approved master plan and aided by state funds.

Fast forward to today, where the Santa Cruz County Fair has become a beloved staple of family fun for the entire community. Come experience the array of attractions the fair has to offer this year, from September 14 through September 18.