The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1980, Volume 26, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Images from the Article

Electronics equipment entered by students in industrial education has replaced displays of gopher traps at the Southern California Exposition at Del Mar. However, the principal objectives set forth in 1880 when the first Expo was held in National City remain virtually the same. Then it was known as the San Diego County Fair.

The Expo, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year is still placing much of its emphasis on livestock, agriculture, home arts, photography, and fine arts.

Many new departments have been added: the indoor-outdoor flower and garden show will be in a new $2 million Pat O’Brien floriculture pavilion, “larger than two football fields,” and there’s a numismatic show, hobbies, gems and minerals, sports and recreation show, plus other attractions.

Frank A. Kimball and his wife, Flora, would delight in seeing their fair now fully matured into a 313-acre, sixteen-day event. It was Kimball who headed the first fair on the site now occupied by Kimball Park in National City.

Early day accounts of the 1880 fair which appeared in the San Diego Union indicate there was less than three months time to prepare for the fair which included the construction of a “main hall this side of Parson’s Store.” It was sponsored by the National Ranch Grange made up of 50 fruit growers and farmers.

According to the Union reporter’s story that appeared on opening day, “the attendance, even at an early hour, was unexpectedly full, and was a pleasant surprise to the manager.”

It was further noted that “Mrs. Switzer” was to make a handsome exhibit of candy “of her manufacture at the Fair” and it was to be on exhibit at Parson’s Store.

Tables running the length of the building from “entrance to platform” were used to display almost every conceivable fruit. One exhibitor had 24 varieties of grapes.

A New England kitchen, it was reported, is “presided over by a band of amiable ladies (that) takes care that none of their visitors shall go away hungry. For the exceedingly moderate charge of 25c they furnish a feast of good things that no hotel table would supply for four times the money.”

Competition for the fair and financing problems played a part in its being moved to Escondido in the late 1880s, then to San Diego. Wyatt Earp judged horses at the Escondido fair which was held at Washington and Grant Streets in a circus tent. “Admission was 15¢ and 25¢ for grown ups,” according to a report. Ladies were highly fascinated by a sewing machine. Samples of its work proved to be very popular.

The first San Diego fairs in the 1890s were shared with Coronado. Horse races with betting and livestock exhibits were held in the Crown City. San Diego’s displays were exhibited in an Armory Hall at Fourth and Ash. The Union reported that opening night attendance sagged even though the fair “Was in a state of most admirable completeness.”

Julian exhibited fruits, grain, and minerals; and management was in a tizzy when Julian’s products overflowed six long tables when it had been allocated only two. As a result it captured nearly all of the prizes for displays of deciduous fruits.

It was noted that L. Root had a 125-lb squash and C. Stein brought one that required two men to lift it. J.R. Campbell of the Coronado Ostrich Farm showed a pen of valuable Indian game birds. Dr. Payne showed dates picked from a 15-year-old palm growing on Seventh Street.

Congressman W.W. Bowers delivered a stern lecture to visitors noting that even though there were 130,000 sheep in the county there wasn’t a single lamb entered. He also was stern about the lack of interest manifested in the fair noting that when it was held in Escondido, “the attendance was never less then 3,000.” The Congressman opposed splitting the fair sites between San Diego and Coronado and suggested securing 100 acres “in the park” for buildings and a race track “that would do honor to the city and county.” Subsequently the fair was moved to Oceanside, then National City again and back to San Diego. The first sponsorship of the fair by the 22nd District Agricultural Association (its present sponsor) occurred in 1901. Through the years Frank Kimball remained active with the fair as agricultural commissioner. In his diary, he mentions a fair held February 5, 1903. Other records indicate fairs were held in Escondido from 1909 through 1912. In the 1920s the fair was shifted to Balboa Park.

James E. Franks became president of the 22nd District in 1933 and he requested California Governor James Rolf to provide a permanent fairgrounds site. Franks enlisted the support of San Diego’s Frank G. Forward and they named a site selection committee. Del Mar was selected primarily because it had rail and highway links to all parts of the county.

In 1935, the State Division of Fairs and Expositions allocated $25,000 for the purchase of 167 acres from Col. Ed Fletcher, the developer of Solana Beach. At that time there was a failing golf course and riding stable located on the grounds.

Del Mar’s first fair was held October 8 through 18, 1936. Rains caused disastrous results. However, spirits were high and District directors vowed to make it a permanent attraction. The original building program was funded with a $1,167,000 allocation which included a $500,666 grant from the Works Progress Administration. The District’s funds then, as they do now, came from a tax on parimutuel wagering. When construction monies ran out and no other funds were available from the Division of Fairs & Expositions, directors turned to local residents Pat O’Brien of Del Mar and Bing Crosby of Rancho Santa Fe. Crosby and O’Brien agreed to put up $500,000, the amount needed to complete construction of buildings and grandstand, in exchange for a 20-year franchise for thoroughbred racing.

The 1936 fair was opened by Governor Frank Merriam who arrived by stage coach. The 100-piece Marine Corps Band presented an hourlong concert. Free grandstand entertainment included mounted troops under the direction of Johnny Wagner; Spanish fiesta girls; the Flying Mathews on a high trapeze; a “thrill a minute by the ace of all dare devils Bunny Marlow;” and high wire miracles by Bunny Dryden, “World’s champion high wire walker at 100 feet.” Standardbred racing included four two-heat races and the crowds kept a dozen parimutuel machines busy.

Opening night featured the Miss Del Mar beauty contest which was the forerunner of the Fairest of the Fair pageant held now. Marjorie Dunham (Peterson), a statuesque brunette, was the winner.

Exhibitors were offered $40,000 in cash awards and Special Events Director W.H. Schmidt staged an amateur hour. He promised that talent scouts from the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, as well as network officials would be in attendance. Even before the first fair closed, directors decided to purchase an additional 26 acres.

The fair was suspended during World War 11 (1942-1945) and the plant and grounds became the aircraft division of the Del Mar Turf Club. Aircraft parts were turned out by “Bing’s Bomber Builders.” Buildings were used for storage of war materials and Queen of the Fair Marge Dunham became Marge the Riveter. The stables on the back stretch of the race track were turned into a bivouac area for soldiers from nearby Camp Callan and marines from Camp Pendleton.

The Fair was resumed in 1947 under the leadership of Showman Ernie Hulick. That year the Fair drew a record 234,297 visitors. Paul T. Mannen, a poultryman and business executive, succeeded Hulick in 1949 and headed the fair for a decade. Bing Crosby Hall and Exhibit Hall were built under his administration.

Management of the thoroughbred club was eventually turned over to a non-profit organization and subsequently to the State Racetrack Leasing Commission which now administers the profits from the race meeting. These now are earmarked for capital improvements which mutually benefit both the Expo and races.

Through the years, attendance and participation at Southern California Exposition has shown a steady growth. In 1979 there were 683,630 visitors while 750,311 people attended the 43-day race meeting. Another 300,000 people were on the grounds for such events as the Scout Fair, Frog Jump, and Junior League Rummage Sale. In 1880, a total of $200.50 was offered in cash and diplomas. This year’s centennial cash offerings amounted to $274,693.00.

The Southern California Exposition, like its 1880 forerunner, still remains one of the best entertainment buys in San Diego County.

The photographs for this article are courtesy of the Bancroft Library, Berkeley.