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Remembering the history of San Diego’s county fair

As every San Diegan knows, it's that time of year again and the fair is on. But not every San Diegan knows how or where it began, or why it ended up in Del mar. Pat Finn has the story.

Most San Diegans still call this three-week plus event of food, carnival rides and animal husbandry the Del Mar Fair, although that's no longer its official moniker. By whatever name, the San Diego County Fair began its colorful life in 1880 in National City, the brain child of Frank Kimball, who wanted to show off the region's horticulture and agriculture. The fair bounced around the county a bit - to Coronado, Oceanside, Balboa Park and Escondido, where one of the judges in the horse competition was reportedly Wyatt Earp.

The 22nd District Agricultural Association, responsible for the fair then and now, got tired of the bouncing and in 1933 asked the Governor to provide a permanent site. Not surprisingly, the site selection committee had no lack of proposals, including one from the South Coast Land Company, owners of the failing Del Mar Golf Course.

But the fair board chose Crown Point in Pacific Beach instead. They should've known better. One of the principals of the South Coast Land Company was Colonel Ed Fletcher, a state senator, developer and builder who had brought San Diego County acres of water, miles of highways, and the suburbs of Solana Beach, Grossmont, Mt. Helix, Fletcher Hills, and part of Del Mar, to name a few. Fletcher, the San Diego embodiment of energy and clout, pointed out that Del Mar was next to the highway, near the train station and easily accessible from L.A. and San Diego. He may not have mentioned that he and the other four owners would make money and get rid of a losing property. In any case, the fair board reversed its decision, and the San Diego County Fair went to Del Mar. The state paid $25,000 for the South Coast Land Company's 167 acres.

Government grants helped start a facility that would turn the Del Mar Fair into a permanent attraction. But the money ran out, leaving the race track unfinished. Taxes on pari-mutuel betting were supposed to support the fair, so something had to be done. The Directors turned for help to some Hollywood horse lovers: Actor Pat O'Brien and entertainer Bing Crosby, who had a home in Rancho Santa Fe. The celebrities agreed to put up the $500,000 needed to finish the grandstand and clubhouse. In exchange, they got a 20 year franchise on thoroughbred racing at Del Mar. The fair was saved, and the first fair in the new facility was opened by governor Frank Merriam on October 8, 1936. Unfortunately, it was an exceptionally rainy October, and the brand new fairgrounds were often a sea of mud.

The fair was suspended during World War II. The Del Mar Turf Club suddenly acquired an aircraft division which turned out airplane parts made by Bing's Bomber Builders. Marines from Camp Pendleton and soldiers from Camp Callan bivouacked in the stables. When the war was over a record crowd of well over 200,000 celebrated the return of the fair in 1946 - or 1947, depending on which history you read. Attendance has been growing ever since.

The fair expects nearly one and a quarter million people to pass through the gates this year. Each year the fair comes up with a theme. For 2006, the theme is water. That's it -- water. But it's water with a twist, so to speak, as this year's theme events show. They include a whaling wall, as in Pacific gray whale - a huge mural - and some smaller ones painted by well-known environmental muralist Wyland. There's also a portable stingray encounter, an iffy concept that didn't seem to alarm this young fairgoer. There's a not-too-scary event billed as the dueling pirates high-dive show; and, oh yes, that most important water event, the daily bathing suit fashion show. New this year are blues and jazz concerts in the paddock area and a mariachi festival. There is a bolo tie contest for those who wear them and a cell phone photo shoot for those who probably don't. And of course there are the acres and acres of food vendors. Most of them sell stuff that's quite high on the all-time list of things that are bad for you in every way possible. But then, hey, it's only once a year.

The San Diego County Fair, formerly the San Diego Fair and Citrus Show, The Southern California Exposition, and the Del Mar Fair, runs through July 4 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It's closed Mondays, except for July 3.

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