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TURLOCK — Summer is fair season and this year Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties hosted fairs that drew more than 300,000 visitors combined. It was the first time since 2013 that the region enjoyed fairs in both counties.
The San Joaquin County Fair was suspended in 2014 and 2015 because of financial headaches. But fair culture runs deep within the Central Valley’s agricultural landscape, and with encouragement from the community, the fair returned and ran for five days from June 15-19.
“We tagged most of our advertising as ‘back by popular demand,.’” said San Joaquin County Fair CEO Kelly Olds. “There were lots of requests from citizens of San Joaquin County to bring the fair back to what everybody had previously experienced.”
Approximately 50,000 guests visited the fair, about 10,000 more than expected.
The event offered fairgoers’ favorites such as the carnival, livestock exhibits, musical entertainment and the judging of agricultural products and textiles, fine art and photography works. However, the 2016 fair included some new components as well.
This year hungry visitors had additional meal choices alongside the deep fried options that are staples at most fairs. Food Truck Alley offered a lineup of vendors providing higher-end food truck cuisine while Smitty’s Wings & Things, a Stockton restaurant recently featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” operated its eatery exclusively from the fairgrounds’ commercial kitchen.
The 2016 fair also introduced more grounds acts which involved strolling performers doing routines including comedy, dance or balloon sculpting.
One new grounds act was particularly popular with youngsters.
“We had a dragon that wandered around, a guy wearing an 80-pound rubber suit, and he looked like a dragon,” Olds said. “Smoke would come out of his nostrils occasionally and he’d have pictures taken with the kids, and that would draw a big crowd around him.”
Other popular exhibitions included BMX bicycle acrobats, Mexican-style professional wrestlers, an antique truck and tractor display, pig races and canine and monkey shows.
Music played an important role at the fair. Couples were lured to dance by performing bands, many featuring Mexican music.
“One of the things we did was really look at the demographics and try to play to the whole community and not just one or two groups,” Olds said.
While the fair featured both traditional and new elements, the purpose and benefits of the San Joaquin Fair have remained constant over the years, according to Olds.
“It’s the entertainment value for the community but also to put a spotlight on agriculture,” he said. “Agriculture is so important here in San Joaquin County as an industry, and it’s to educate the public about agriculture.”
Approximately 230,000 people visited this year’s Stanislaus County Fair, held from July 8 -17 at the county fairgrounds in Turlock.
The fair’s purpose of providing local family entertainment while emphasizing the area’s agricultural background has been consistent since 1911.
“We always look and cater to our demographic as always, but at the same time we always want to keep the nostalgia with the fair,” said Stanislaus County Fair Marketing and Communications Director Adrenna Alkhas. “With our fair it is really Ag-focused and having the livestock, the competitive exhibits, and keeping those, is very, very important to us.”
Walking through the fairgrounds is like taking a stroll through history according to Alkhas. The event started as the Melon Carnival in 1911 and later became the Stanislaus Fair in the late 1920s. The event evolved into the Stanislaus County Fair when the state purchased the current Turlock fairgrounds in the 1940s.
“Over the last 105 years we’ve been a family affair,” said Alkhas. “If you look back at photos from 1911 and compare to photos now, it’s the same thing. It’s Mom and Dad holding their child’s hand walking around the fairgrounds looking at the rides, eating the food.”
The Stanislaus County Fair is an event that Dawne Hamman’s family of Modesto has enjoyed every summer. Over the past eight years, Hamman’s four sons have raised and shown animals at the fair, a tradition that was not only fun but helped shape them as well.
“Our county fair and FFA chapter experience has given us lifelong memories, lessons and friendships that have, in turn, make our kids well-rounded, productive, responsible, fun-loving young men,” said Hamman.
Still, changing with the times in order to keep the fair fresh and inviting to younger visitors is important as well.
“That’s why we also created the Gaming Expo this year where kids and families could fly their own drones, and there was an interactive component inside where kids could play video games,” Alkhas said.
Other new events at the 2016 fair included the High Diving Pirates show, pig races and a lounge targeted at inspiring young girls to become leaders.
The EmpowHER Lounge offered workshops and presentations on leadership and technology skills along with ways to build confidence among girls.