Old State Fair

Mexican Border Crisis of 1916 and World War I

The California State Fairgrounds were used as a mobilization camp during both the 1916 Mexican Border Crisis and for World War I.

World War II

The former California State Fairgrounds is located on 155.91 acres situated east of the intersection of Stockton and Broadway, Sacramento, California. The Army leased 154.91 acres from Sacramento County and 1.0 acre from Sacramento City from 1941 to 1943.

The site was known as the Sacramento State Fairgrounds and the California State Fairgrounds. It initially was used as the Sacramento Advanced Communications Zone Depot (later Sacramento Signal Depot) and then as an auxiliary storage area for McClellan Field. The site was under Army control only during the period of the lease. Fairgrounds buildings were used for storage, and $65,000 worth of Army construction was built. All buildings reverted back to the original owners upon the termination of the lease.

Before the present day State Fair called Cal-Expo, the “Old State Fair” was in use from 1906-1967 and located on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and Broadway. The old fairgrounds stretched for almost a mile north and east from that intersection. The western border of the fairgrounds stretched north from Broadway all the way up to X Street where it went east up to 48th Street then snaked in a southerly direction back towards Broadway. The old State Fair spread out across a vast expanse of land.

The stately brick building called the Governor’s Hall covered that corner and marked the entrance to the fair. Old Merlino’s Orange Freeze was right across the street from that entrance.

Many came to the fair on the very first day called Kid’s Day when kids got in for free. Some entered the fair at the north gate on approximately 48th Street. From there, walk south down a broad avenue past a line of stately buildings.

First came the Hall of Flowers. We loved entering that building, not only because of the beautiful flowers on display, but because they kept it very cool to preserve the fresh cut flowers. A watery mist always seemed to fill the air in that building.

Next came the Counties Building, another beautiful brick edifice, which featured exhibits from every one of California’s 58 counties. The theme of each county exhibit reflected the agriculture and industry, which characterized that county. Placer County always featured a 49er panning for gold. Yolo County had rice and tomatoes. Los Angeles County showcased – what else – movies. The exhibits changed yearly and were always fascinating. What I liked was that almost every exhibit had small miniature people (18” – 24”) working or riding in some type of vehicle like a train or boat.

Next in the line of buildings came the Hall of Industry with vendors hawking their various wares including: blenders, choppers, window cleaners, etc. The vendors always offered samples to all, even the kids who never bought anything.

We called it the Merchandise buildings because you could pick up a plastic bag at a booth and then go to each booth and get their free handout flier. When we got home we would read through them all. It seemed as if we had won a prize.

The streets were lined with all kinds of venders. A furry mouse was attached to a transparent string, making it move as if it were alive! One year my folks let me buy a live little green turtle, but said no to the chameleon on a string. It didn’t take much too make a kid happy back then.

From there, the street through the fair turned east, toward the carnival that we never went to because my folks thought it was a waste of money. You had to pass the racetrack on the north. You could peek through some of the bushes at certain spots and I remember watching a motorcycle race on the turn one time and the riders would lay their bikes almost on the ground with their knee out. I was amazed at the speed and bravery.

Next, my dairy farmer dad would head to his favorite part, the livestock barns on the south. My dad would stop at EVERY stall; cows, sheep, horses, and pigs and make some comment, like, “I bet that Holstein produces a lot of milk” or “ I like how that forelock is centered and she has two beautiful rear socks” and “That pig is going to make a lot of bacon.” You could literally reach in and pet the critters and talk with their young 4-H owner. My dad could spend hours there if we let him. All I remember was everything smelled like shit and I wanted to get to the Army exhibit and climb on the tank.

The carnival was always very popular and offered the usual rides like the Ferris Wheel, the Hammer and the Tilt-a-Whirl, which all made me sick. Many played games like the Derby, which emulated a real horse race. And, of course, there was soda pop, corn dogs and mysterious things like the two-headed boy and the bearded lady.

I didn’t know this, but at night, they held outdoor dances adjacent to the carnival for the teenage kids. In the early ’60s, the bands at the fair played surf music. Remember Wipeout? How about Dickey Dale and Deltones?

Days at the old State Fair always ended with fireworks at 9 p.m. They shot them off above a lake in the center of the old racetrack. Seeing the beautiful, if short, display always capped a great day of fun and adventure. It wasn’t Disneyland, but it was one heck of a lot of fun.

1950’s race car No. 180 were big draws at the Fair. Photo circa 1956

Cal Expo is an updated version of the Old State Fair, but just doesn’t seem to be as much fun. Maybe, it’s me just looking at it differently now that I have grown up. I wonder if Cal Expo makes the same kind of memories to the present day visitors as the old fairgrounds did for me.

Thanks Marty Relles for much of the above information.

In 1967, the last year of the “Old State Fair,” was Miss Elk Grove Lauralee Hill (EGHS ’67) represented Elk Grove.

There were many events held at the State Fair over the years and here was a unique one:

Some local Elk Grove residents recall some of their memories of the Old State Fair:

Larkin (Morse – EGHS ’71)-Penrose, a member of a pioneering family in Elk Grove shares this memory:

Talking about the Old State Fair triggered a conversation with my husband Jim last evening and we had fun talking about our State Fair experiences.  We remember the excitement we had as young children when we would go with our families to the Old State Fair Grounds with their majestic brick buildings.  The first and foremost thing that was drummed into our heads when we stepped onto the Fair Grounds was that we were to meet at the golden bears if any of us were separated from our parents.  

Jim remembered the little train cars that were strung together like elephants that would transport people from the front to the back of the fair.  Each car would hold several people and he and his buddy would run to try and jump on the last car as it drove by.

One of my favorites was the Hall of Flowers (the air conditioned misty building with the waterfall and great landscaping displays). My mom and I also enjoyed the  flower arranging displays and table settings.   I remember getting a little bag of lavender sachet in the Hall of Flowers as my remembrance of the fair.  Jim said that he got one of the chameleons on a string that was safety pinned to his shirt.  And who could forget tossing ping pong balls to win a goldfish that you could take home in a plastic bag filled with colored water?  I can remember my brother, Michael, proudly winning a set of ruby red stemmed goblets for my mom by throwing dimes in them.  Mom went out of her way to serve something in them each Christmas to his delight.

We remembered standing in line to try samples of food and ranking them on small pieces of paper.  For meals, we would head to the pizza garden to have a big gooey piece of pepperoni pizza and maybe an Orange Julius as we listened to piped in German accordion music.  Snow cones were also a big hit on a hot Sacramento day.  The commercial building had delicious vanilla ice cream bars dipped in rich chocolate that we looked for each year.

Jim  said that his family would go to the back of the fair to watch the horses race.  He remembered how the ground shook as the large steeds would race for the finish line in a flurry.  Side Note: Jim went to McClatchy High School and had to share lockers with another student because the school was so crowded (the year before Kennedy was opened).  His locker mate missed quite a bit of school one month and Jim later found out that he was a Jockey at the State Fair’s Racetrack and he had been injured when he fell off one of the horses.  Some of the jockeys must have been pretty young in those days.

As a farmer’s daughter, I also remembered spending a good deal of time in the agricultural barns and watching the pigs and calves being born.  We then proceeded to take a good long look at all the latest and greatest models of tractors and farm equipment.  The County Building was always a highlight with all of the animation and the various produce displays stacked precisely together.  The next stop was the various sewing, food and industrial artdisplays to see who won the grand prize.  

At night we would ride the Ferris wheel and when it stopped at the highest point of the ride, you could look out and see most of the fairgrounds with all of the colorful lights and people below.  It was at that point that my dad proceeded to rock the car back and forth as I would scream to his amusement.  And at the end of the evening, thefireworks would burst in the sky as the glittering silver shower would cascade down as we would sit and watch in amazement. 

Present Day

The current old day fairgrounds ownership is comprised of several individual homeowners, the University of California, and the City of Sacramento and is occupied in some form or the other by the University of California at Davis; Medical Center, Medical School, Nursing School, Medical Clinics and Research Centers.