“The Beginning of a Great Enterprise”: The First Los Angeles County Fair, 1922

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic (the only other gap was during the World War II era in the 1940s), the Los Angeles County Fair returned this year, but with a move from September to May because of the anticipation of better weather. The event began on the 5th and, though there were some hot days early on, the weather has been generally temperate since then and is expected to remain so through Memorial Day when the fair closes, with expectations that attendance will top the 1 million mark over 26 days.

The Homestead had a table at the 48th District Agricultural Association’s Agriculture and Nutrition Fair, long held in the spring, but this year dovetailing with the fair, so we had a chance to engage with a few hundred school children, teachers, parents and, towards the end, when the fair opened, some of the early attendees. While the fair has largely been popular for rides, games, activities and, of course, food and drink, it still highlights aspects of agriculture, even as our region has changed dramatically from the time the first county fair was held a century ago in 1922.

A precursor to the Los Angeles County Fair was the Southern District Agricultural Association’s Agricultural Fair, held at Agricultural, now Exposition, Park from 31 October to 3 November 1871, just a week after the horrific Chinese Masacre. Los Angeles Star, 31 October 1871.

There actually was a precursor about a half-century prior to that when the Southern District Agricultural Association, with F.P.F. Temple as a founder, was established in 1870. With the creation of Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park, the Association launched its first four-day Agricultural Fair at the end of October 1871. This was just a week after the horrific Chinese Massacre, during which a mob of hundreds of Anglos and Latinos lynched a teenage boy and 18 men after an interethnic conflict broke out and a Latino constable was wounded and a white man who tried to intercede was killed.

The fair, while premiums were awarded to livestock and subsequently for farm products, home goods and others, was mainly popular to Angelenos for the horse races that were something of a continuation of a long local tradition. Among the notables who brought their steeds to Agricultural Park for competition were Leonard J. Rose, whose Sunny Slope Ranch was in the central San Gabriel Valley (he is the namesake of the city of Rosemead); Fielding W. Gibson, who was recently featured in a post on this blog; Thomas D. Mott; and Francisco P. (Chico) Forster, whose father was an English immigrant to Mexican California and whose mother was a Pico, but whose 1881 death at the hands of young Lastenia Abarta after he seduced her on a promise of marriage has also been covered here.

Los Angeles News, 1 November 1871.

In 1922, when fields just to the north of the Ganesha Hills and the park of that name in Pomona were set aside for the establishment of the five-day fair, Los Angeles County was still an agricultural power, though the inexorable, creeping suburbanization radiating out from the Angel City was gradually making inroads in the hinterlands. Just one example came only months after the fair when Walter P. Temple turned former bean and melon fields into his Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928.

Further east, especially beyond the San Gabriel River, however, there were large swaths of land devoted to the raising of oranges, walnuts and other crops, with Temple’s Workman Homestead largely planted to the high-value nut. In the southern and southeastern sections of the county, truck farming (such as in Gardena) and dairies (Artesia being an example) were largely found, while almost all of the San Fernando Valley remained undeveloped and lemons, olives and field crops could be found in abundance.

Pomona Progress, 17 October 1922.

Pomona, named for a Roman goddess of fruit and founded in 1875 with loans from the Temple and Workman bank, the failure of which, however, led to the town becoming moribund until the Boom of the 1880s, was growing rapidly and it was the center of a large agricultural area, dominated by citrus. It was, therefore, a choice location for the fair with plenty of land in its northwestern corner for the event, which has remained on the site, now known as the Fairplex, since.

The pride Pomona professed in putting on the event was shown by its newspapers, such as the Progress, which on the eve of the fair, in its edition of 17 October (about the time of the fall harvest season), proclaimed

Two hundred thousand people, it is predicted, will view the Los Angeles County Fair, that in three months has become a reality. From a forty-acre field sowed with beets and alfalfa, the grounds have become a small city, with six large tents, one said to be the largest in the world, several buildings, a race track and grandstands, and other buildings.

That is the record of the fair, a record of development of which Pomona can well be proud.

It was added that the genesis for the event was not known, though it was reported that a pair of members of the local Lions club sowed the idea at a meeting a year prior and “this was taken up by the Chamber of Commerce, a committee [of which was] considering it for sometime.” That group came back with a favorable report in the spring and it noted “that the fair should be founded primarily for the advancement of agricultural, horticulture [sic] and animal husbandry industries; that all other things should be supplemental to the main idea.”

Progress, 17 October 1922.

Meanwhile, the committee continued, the fair had to be “clean,” meaning that, at all costs, what were to be avoided were “those that degenerated to the cheap carnival type. and general gambling conditions,” which could only end up as “short-lived and, eventually, failures.” In April, the Los Angeles County Fair Association was incorporated and Pomona stated to it that, if $42,000 could be raised for the development of the fair, the city would purchase the necessary property and contribute towards the construction of the race track. A stock subscription was issued, with $30,000 raised very quickly, while the county’s Board of Supervisors also appropriated $10,000 toward the event.

A separate article under a panoramic photo taken from the Ganesha Hills and taking in the 40-acre site added that the larges tent was 550 feet long by 130 feet wide, large enough to contain the exhibits for agriculture, automobiles, horticulture and industry. The main entrance was situated in front of the tent, to the east of which were a pair of tents accommodating displays of pigeons, poultry, rabbits and other animals. Nearby were barns for livestock and another tent for more hogs, while a cattle judging area and small grandstand were also in this section.

Progress, 17 October 1922.

Northeast of the main tent was the grandstand and half-mile horse-racing track. Notably, a new city well on the property and a water tank were recent additions to the property, the acquisition of which served broader purposes for Pomona. West of the grandstand were the barns for the race horses and a farm tractor tent was just north of the main tent, beyond the north end of which, as well, was the “zone” for entertainment concessionaires.

Another piece quoted A.L. Andrews, construction superintendent, who noted that work began at the end of July and there were ten acres of sugar beets to be harvested before the race track could be started. He added that the half-dozen tents covered more than 140,000 square feet and that over a mile of fencing was used for surrounding the track while a like amount was used for the entire grounds.

Progress, 17 October 1922.

The cost of the grandstand and bleachers was some $10,000 and 13,000 feet of pipe was used for the water system, while Andrews provided amounts for cement, crushed rock and sand employed for foundations and floors as well as decomposed granite for tent floors and walkways on the grounds. North of 430,000 feet of lumber and over 8,700 pounds of nails, along with 900 square feet of roofing material were utilized.

Ten miles of electric wire for lighting and some 3,000 bulbs from 25 to 1,000 watts were needed and Andrews told the Progress “I think that I am safe in saying that when all the lights are lit for the fair, as much electricity will be used as in the city of Pomona [for] one night.” He expressed pride that “the men worked fine, and enabled all of the construction work to be done on time,” with payroll through mid-October totaling nearly $25,000. He concluded that it was rare for a project of that magnitude to be finished without any construction delays and the previous ten days entailed finishing touches and decorating.

Los Angeles Express, 18 October 1922.

Speaking of decorations, the paper reported that “never in the history of Pomona has there been so much decorating done” with “miles of bunting . . . displayed” while Second Street in the heart of downtown’s business district “is one mass of colors” including American and California flags in abundance. With the whole of the commercial section in “holiday colors,” the paper added that “tourists passing through the last few days have been compelled to stay over for the fair because of the lure a decorated city offers. Park Avenue, the main road to the grounds, was decorated its entire distance and other streets were festooned as they led to the site.

When it came to the fairgrounds:

the decorations are extensive. The front entrance and all avenues leading through the grounds are a glory to behold. Bunting, colored light shades and green palms proclaim the festivities that are opening in earnest today.

Inside the buildings and tents, especially in the main exposition tent, no expense has been spared to make this the most beautiful fair ever held in California, and those who have visited other fairs are loud in their praises for what Pomona has done along decorative lines.

Trumpeting “Pomona’s Greatest Achievement,” the Progress editorialized that “no greater day has ever dawned than this” in the city and that it “will be known . . . as the beginning of a great enterprise, which is destined to become an annual event, which will become more significant from year to year.” Allowing that the city had many days that showed its progressiveness and sense of enterprise, the paper professed that, whatever had been done in the past, “never has anything equalled in magnitude the event which today is making history for Pomona.”

Express, 18 October 1922.

It opined that the fair’s founders could not have anticipated what was achieved in such a short timeframe and asked the rhetorical question: “How was it possible in much less than a year of actual planning for the citizens of Pomona to present to the world such a great undertaking as the Los Angeles County Fair?” It’s answer, simply, was that community spirit and cooperation, along with the work of others from outside the city, brought a unity that made the remarkable event come together. Recognizing the support of the community broadly, the paper concluded by heaping praise on the association, “who guided the destinies of the enterprise past many dangerous rocks into the open sea of complete success.”

For its part, the Los Angeles Express added to the information by noting that there were over 100 industrial exhibits and nearly 70 for automobiles, while “the chicken show is the biggest on record” and the smaller tents on their own were “big enough to house the exhibits of an ordinary county fair.” Cities that had displays in the main tent were almost exclusively from the San Gabriel Valley and far east end of the county from Alhambra to Azusa to Glendora on the north and El Monte and Puente on the south.

Bulletin, 22 October 1922.

That chicken show alone offered $15,000 in premium prizes, with another $10,000 for horse and chariot races and $3,500 for the horse show. In all, the paper opined, the fair “is one of the most pretentious and attractive ever conducted on the coast” while stating that there were large crowds during the afternoon and evening on the first day and the anticipation that some 100,000 would attend over the course of the fair—this being half the estimate of the Progress, though!

When the event was over, the Progress lauded the “Pomona Spirit” and remarked that the fair “proved conclusively” that the city “can successfully accomplish a big enterprise in a big way” in a place where there was “a group of people who can work together and carry out projects that would do credit to a much larger city.” It cautioned, however, that the metropolis should not rest on its laurels “because there are other civic enterprises which need the kind of support that was given to the fair” and residents were implored to “find new outlets for their energy” so that any other endeavor “shall have the support which it deserves.”

Times, 22 October 1922.

The Pomona Bulletin also expressed satisfaction and pride in the great accomplishment of the fair and felt “volumes could be written of its various phases and how they surpassed all expectations.” Officials stated that they were pleased and the results “resounded from every angle” and there was every expectation “that it would grow and grow until it became one of the greatest attractions of the great southwest.” The paper felt it important to add that the fair included “a gay crowd filled with the true carnival spirit” but also “having nothing of the rough element which so often appears.”

The article noted that, when 11 p.m. came and the fair finally ended, a few hangers-on trying to get the most of their admission fee were found and most food concessions were sold out, while exhibitors, having dealt with huge crowds that Saturday, were “too tired to even start packing up” and cleaning crews “put off till later the task of cleaning up.” Papers asking visitors to “Keep Smiling” did not have as much success with those “too weary to heed their advice” at that late hour.

Progress, 23 October 1922.

The Los Angeles Times noted that the event was “crowned with success” and added that “the initial success insures the permanency of the fair as an annual event” with plans for 1923 already underway and a bigger event expected. The paper reported that 25,000 persons visited that last day and that 100,000 “was the total attendance at the fair, breaking all other Southern California fair records.”

The undated snapshot, but likely from the late 1920s, shown here and which is the featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post, shows the fairgrounds from what looks to be the northeast corner of Ganesha Hills with what looks to be Paige Drive winding through the foreground and McKinley Avenue running left to right. A great many cars are in the fairground property and what looks to be Building 4 dominates the center of the view with tents behind it. Above those looks to be White Avenue on the eastern end of the property.

A circa late 1920s snapshot from the Museum’s holding taken from the Ganesha Hills of the fairgrounds.

As the centennial year of the Los Angeles County Fair winds down on Memorial Day, hopefully this brief history of the inaugural edition of 1922 has been interesting and informative and we’ll look to share other artifacts in the Museum’s holdings related to the fair during the Roaring Twenties.

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