HISTORY OF THE MERCED COUNTY FAIR
Except for a few years when money was scarce, and during World War II, Merced County has had a fair since 1891. The first Merced County Fair, representing the districts of Merced and Mariposa counties, started out in a pavilion on 18th Street on September 2, 1891.
The beginning of the Merced County Fair "as we know it today," according to the first Fair manager, W.C. Woxberg, was a two-day event on September 14 & 15, 1929, in the old Municipal Baseball Park, which is now called Applegate Park. The Merchants’ Association sponsored fairs there through 1931, which usually included a rodeo and small 4-H livestock shows. It wasn’t until 1931, that the Fair moved to its current location on 11th and G streets.
Unfortunately by 1936 the Fair was broke and was unable to hold that year’s Fair so the Fairgrounds went dark. However, local businesses pooled together funds to get the Fair up and running again by 1937. That year’s Merced-Mariposa Fair was a big deal! It included a parade, a three-day horse racing program, livestock show, farm exhibits and a Hollywood Revue. The next year, in 1938, the Fair started charging 25 cents for general admission (kids 12 and under were free) to help make the Fair more fiscally sound. By 1941, the Fair was a financial success – the new Pavilion was build and the Fair not only got out of debt, but ended up $2,000 in the black “with an unheard of crowd of 18,000 people,” according to Mr. Woxberg. But that wouldn’t last.
It wasn’t long after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, that the fairgrounds and facilities were leased to the Federal government to serve as an assembly center for more than 5,000 Japanese internees who had been ordered to report for relocation. They stayed until August 1942, when most were taken by train to an internment camp in Colorado.
A fair was held that year but it didn’t include many ag exhibits because farmers were too busy growing food to feed the nation. The smaller 1942 Fair consisted of solely of livestock, poultry and flower displays; it was held only during daylight hours because of the wartime curfew and blackout restrictions. Another Fair wouldn’t be held until 1946 when it was turned over to the 35th District Agricultural Association, part of the California Department of Food & Agriculture. That year’s Fair had a record-breaking attendance of 30,000 people.
Since then, the Merced County Fairgrounds has served many purposes – it has housed a county library branch, a fire station, a school for the mentally-handicapped, a preschool program and was the "birthplace" of Merced College and temporarily housed the Leontine Gracey Elementary School while construction was being completed on the new school. It was at one time home to the J. Emmett McNamara Memorial Museum before the collection was moved to the Old Courthouse Building in 1977; the building on the Fairgrounds now serves as the Director’s Lounge during the Fair, and then rented throughout the year. It has seen thousands of wedding receptions, parties, banquets, dinners, dances, quinceañeras, proms and many other important events in the community.
Since its inception, the Merced County Fair has always been the big annual event bringing the community together each year. From a simple 2-day event to now featuring 5-days of great free entertainment, an incredible livestock exhibit as well as a variety of other competitive exhibits, carnival rides, delicious Fair food and countless memories for the more than 70,000 Fairgoers that attend – the Merced County Fair is still THE BIGGEST SHOW IN TOWN!
Merced County Fair Historical Timeline
1891 – The first Merced County Fair (MCF) representing districts of Merced and Mariposa counties was held.
1929 – The first MCF “as we know it today” was held at the old Municipal Baseball Park (Applegate Park); the
Merchants’ Association sponsored the Fair until 1931, featuring a rodeo and small 4-H livestock show.
1931 – The Merced County Fair moves to its current location on 11th and G streets.
1936 – Due to financial hardships, the Fair was not held this year.
1937 – Thanks to support from local businesses, the Fair resumes as the Merced-Mariposa Fair featuring a
parade, a three-day horse racing program, livestock show, farm exhibits and a Hollywood Revue
1938 – MCF begins charging 25 cents for admission. Kids 12 and under were able to get in for free.
1941 – The Fairgrounds and facilities were leased Federal government to serve as an assembly center for more
than 5,000 Japanese internees who had been ordered to report for relocation. They stayed until
August 1942, when most were taken by train to an internment camp in Colorado.
1942 – The Fair resumes; however it did not include many agriculture exhibits as farmers were too busy growing
food to help feed the nation. The smaller 1942 Fair consisted of solely of livestock, poultry and flower displays; it was held only during daylight hours because of the wartime curfew and blackout restrictions. There would not be another Fair held until after the war.
1946 – The Merced County Fairgrounds was turned over to the 35th District Agricultural Association, part of the
California Department of Food & Agriculture. That year, the Fair had a record-breaking attendance of 30,000 people.
1947 – The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis had an operative iron lung on display at its booth at the
Fair; all during the polio epidemic.
1948 – In 1948, Betty Hansen Rouff, described as a "pert 19-year-old Los Banos housewife" was selected Queen
of the Fair. Her prize for winning was an all-expense paid trip to Hollywood and an appearance on the "Queen for a Day" radio program.
1949 – To ensure that all local baseball teams had an up-to-date baseball field where they could play night games,
a park was constructed at 11th and G streets at a cost of $50,000. Dedicated in 1949, the biggest impetus for the new baseball field was provided by the Merced Bears, "champions of the San Joaquin Valley," who had previously played all their home games in Atwater during the 1948 season.
1963 – The Merced College got its starts at the Fairgrounds.
1977 – The contents of the J. Emmett McNamara Memorial Museum were moved to the Old Courthouse Building.
1986 – For the first three weeks of the school year, 650 students and staff of Leontine Gracey School held classes
at the Fairgrounds while their new school was finished.
Help us build the history of the Merced County Fair in more detail! Do you have tidbits of Merced County Fair history you can share? Stories to tell? Pictures to show us? If you do, please reach out and tell us all about it at info@MercedCountyFair.com.