Walking to the old California State Fair


Back when I grew up, the Cal Expo only existed as a blue print on somebody’s drawing board. Instead, we had the California State Fairgrounds. It stood proudly at the intersection of Stockton Boulevard and Broadway in south Sacramento.

Marty Relles

Marty Relles

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 to the fair.

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. Unlike the modern Cal Expo, which seems a little cramped to me. The old State Fair spread out across a vast expanse of land.

We attended the old State Fair annually, usually on Kid’s Day (the first day of the fair) when kids got in for free. We always entered the fair at the north gate on approximately 48th Street. From there, we walked 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 always fascinated us.

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

From there, the street through the fair turned east, headed for the carnival, our favorite stop, but not before passing the race track on the north, and livestock barns on the south.

The entrance to the old California State Fairgrounds. The old fairgrounds were located at Stockton Blvd. and Broadway in Sacramento. / Photo courtesy, the Lance Armstrong collection

The entrance to the old California State Fairgrounds. The old fairgrounds were located at Stockton Blvd. and Broadway in Sacramento. / Photo courtesy, the Lance Armstrong collection

Strangely enough, we loved walking through the livestock barns. The cows, sheep and pigs always fascinated us: a bunch of city boys who only saw animals at the zoo. Here we could literally reach in and pet the critters. Somehow that made them seem a lot more real than at the zoo.

Finally, came the carnival where we spent our hard-earned dimes and quarters on rides like the Ferris Wheel, the Hammer and the Tilt-a-Whirl. We played games like the Derby which emulated a real horse race. We drank soda pop, ate corn dogs and saw mysterious things like the two-headed boy and the bearded lady.

At night, they held outdoor dances adjacent to the carnival for the teen aged kids like we were at the time. In the early ’60s, the bands at the fair played surf music. Remember Wipeout? How about Dickey Dale and Deltones? A friend of ours, Danny Blakolb, actually played with a surf band at the fair. We danced, sang along and generally had a blast.

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 race track. 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.

Our days of fun at the old State Fair are nothing but a long past memory to me now. I rarely attend Cal Expo. Somehow, its concrete structures don’t measure up to the brick buildings and tree-lined streets of the old fair – yet another cherished Janey Way Memory.


32 Responses to Walking to the old California State Fair

  1. Shirley says:

    I grew up on 9th ave off Stockton Blvd in the 50’s and went to Donner Elementary School. We used to walk to the fair every year. I have great memories of it.

  2. Calvin Tong says:

    Hi-I’m 66, and remember the State Fair as the writer and comments do. My grandfather and father were farmers in the Valley during WW2. After moving to San Francisco, they’d return to Sacramento during fair time. It always reminds me of a simple and fun era. Does anyone remember when it was held? I thought in September, but could be wrong.

  3. Tim says:

    My mom grew up in Elmhurst. I spent a lot of time there at my grandad’s house when I was young. They had to move when the houses were removed for highway 50. I went to the old fair from the mid 1950’s until it closed. I saved coins from raking leaves in the neighborhood and selling small bags of loquates door to door from my grandfathers tree. Then I went to the bank with mon and had my hard earned pay converted to dimes the day before going to the fair. I tossed dimes for ashtrays, threw ping pong balls for goldfish, and tried (in vain) to ring what are now considered old coke bottles until I ran out of money. WOW, what fantastic memories at the old fairgrounds midway!
    Someone else said that the main gate was at the Governor’s Hall building, but I always thought It was on Stockton blvd., across from the Merlinos stand. Oh well, I guess I was too young and excited to be at the fair to pay attention to which gate was which.
    Also, like Maria Gjura said, us kids spent lots of afternoons at the roller rink. I think it was called rainbow roller rink, although I can’t find any photos or info about it now. Those were the days!

  4. DENA says:

    YOU CAN FIND PHOTOS OF THE OLD CALIFORNIA STATE FAIR ON THREE D AT THE COUNTY LIBRARIES DOWN TOWN SACRAMENTO MANY SPECTACULAR PHOTOS The old California state fair nothing like it. My family are fair goers and they all remember the beautiful tree lined streets the governors hall all the great music. I was with my dad when Harry James and his orchestra was there also Bill Race and I remember when American Bandstand came live with Dick Clark I was 12 and you had to be 13 to get on stage but I could dance and they put me in the roped stage. The flowers, carnival, Animals, fun omg there was nothing like it and will never be again. Every time I think of it I cry so many darn good memories, And the teenage girls would color there hair in pink and blue .. Oh and did I mention the best cotton candy and red cinnamon apples.

  5. Elisabeth Huson Goodman says:

    When I was young my mother worked for the State of Calif Budget Dept and every year for the fair season I’d go to work with her as the office she worked out of included the fair budget and was located on the grounds there on Stockton blvd. Lucky me, as a 10, 11, 12 yr old I got to hang out there every day wandering about. I got to know the carneys & ride operators. Mom didn’t know that part because she’d totally disapprove! Free rides and food for me though.My grandmother loved the horse races and took me almost daily where she let me pick races and then place my bets for me! I got good at eavesdropping on random men discussing bets and horses and actually won a lot of money that way. I loved the Hall of Flowers and the old County Bldg plus there were daily kids’s puppet shows with Buffalo Bob & Howdy Doody. Later years were the Friday night frat dances at Governor’s Hall which were fund raising events for social clubs from Sac High & McClatchy. The clubs were named: (girls) “KT”, “Mañana”, “Ayudante”,the boy’s clubs were named: “36”, and “Homme Rase”, always featuring bandleader Bill Rase, dress was casual. Sweet sixteen summer nights were the best.

  6. Helen Backer says:

    I lived on 7th Avenue during the late 1950’s in the old Solum house I so remember going through the parking lot to the fair! The best memories of my childhood! It was so magnificent the beauty, I loved it! Thanks for the walk walk down memory lane that was 60 years ago!!

  7. In 1954, the 100th Annivesary of the state fair, a fountain was dedicated. The fountain shot water 30′ into the air. When the fair closed, the fountain was given to the City of Lodi rather than destroy it. I am currently repairing the sculpture and wondering if anyone has pictures of the fountain in the 50’s. If anyone has a suggestion where I maybe able to find pictures, let me know. That fountain is now at the southwest intersection of Hutchins and Vine Street.
    Thanks for any help.

  8. Bob Woodson says:

    OOPS! One more correction. The new Jr. Museum is on Auburn Blvd east of Watt Avenue, not Fair Oaks Blvd.

  9. Bob Woodson says:

    Correction: Gomez Market was moved to Sacramento Blvd, not Freeport Blvd.
    Marty mentioned Kid’s Day was free for kids. It may have changed at some point but I remember all kids under 12 could get in free any day of the fair. That was yet another sad thing about becoming a teenager – no more going to the fair for free.

  10. Bob Woodson says:

    We lived on 9th Ave, four blocks from the old fairgrounds. Us kids would try to get to go to the fair two or three times each year. At least once each year was with our folks – that much was a gimme. For a few years my grandparents lived on 7th Ave. So sometimes us kids would walk over to grandma’s and go through her back gate into the fair’s parking lot, as a shortcut to the fair. There was a gap between the houses across the street from us on 9th Ave. Every night during the fair we and the neighbors would set up folding chairs on the lawn and have a free view of the fireworks, only the ground displays couldn’t be seen. Speaking of small stores, there was the Gomez Market on Stockton Blvd, south of Broadway, a door or two south of the gas station on the corner. Once as a young tad, while in that store with my dad, I got to see the Sacramento streetcar go by on the tracks in the middle of Stockton Blvd. The streetcar was shut down shortly after that, and I never saw it again. The Gomez’s lived on 10th Ave, for a while, they eventually moved their store over onto Freeport Blvd.,if my memory serves me. What people today might not know is that Cal Expo was planned to go from where it is – clear over to Arden Way. The state politicians needed money, so they sold off the north section, then Governor “Pat” Brown was involved as I recall. That is why Cal Expo never approached what it was planned to be. I went to the fair at Cal Expo once. I have boycotted it since. Later the politicians got more money when they sold the old fairgrounds. Every year during the summer the Jr Museum had free movies for kids. A new Jr Museum was built on Fair Oaks Blvd, east of Watt. But though a modern building, it never impressed me as an adult.

  11. Ed Fong says:

    Nice memories. I suppose as a 14 year old in 1966, I could not imagine life to be any better. My dad, along with other partners, owned State Fair Market on Stockton Blvd, just a few blocks from the Fairgrounds. During the Fair, cars stretched for miles on Stockton Blvd and moved at a slow crawl to the large dirt parking lot on Broadway. However, we had plenty of parking spaces on our store lot for the weary & frustrated fair-goers – but at tripled Fair prices. Needless to say, we had many reluctant customers, who snarled and growled as they drove in!

  12. Sherry says:

    Why can’t find a list of bands who played at the San Bernardino California fair grounds in the 1960’s and early 70’s. Would like to back to my teen years. Sherry

  13. Bruce says:

    Just so you know, the entrance on the U street side of the fair grounds had a couple of different mismatched fences. SO when I was young and skinny, my cousin and I would slip through the slim openings and go to the fair for free… Hey we didn’t have any money to speak of except a couple of dollars that we could pull together had to go for food. I loved walking around the old fair grounds and if I could go back in time – I’d do it all over again. The late 50’s and early 60’s were the greatest years of my life…. Signed: Kit Carson Jr High school alumni

  14. Robert C. says:

    Thanks for this page Marty! Does it ever bring back memories for me too – wow! The the smells – remember the famous State Fair tacos? Those grand old brick buildings – I can still remember the relief from the coolness of the one that housed the flowers. Along with iti fox’s memories, my Grandmother too lived nearby (42nd & T streets). She would take all us us each year, bad leg and all. She too had one of those small markets near her house. It was NEVER the same after moving to Cal Expo. But those memories will live on in my heart.

  15. iti fox says:

    I remember it was just around the corner from my Grandparents home. We went there each year when we visited. I remember watching a man with a backpack fly over the the gate once. Loved the fireworks. I still have a ‘smokey’ the bear doll from a drawing box that the winner received. But the winner ‘my Grandparents’ had to listen to his insurance speech for over an hour to get it. The next time we visited my Grandmother gave it to me. Its very faded now, but still brings back the memories.

    I think i always wanted an indoor waterfall after seeing them here. I dont have my grandparents address anymore, from then, and often try to find that old house on google maps. I know it had a deep cellar and then steps leading to the first floor. The upper house was an apartment and the steps were on the side. loved that great old house.

    Just down the block and cross the street to a tiny store where i bought dill pickles that were in a barrel. I can still hear the sound of the creaking screen door when you opened it. I think i went to that little store 3 times a day!

  16. Maria Gjura says:

    I don’t go to the cement State Fair, either. I love my memories of the old State Fair with the country feel of friendship and inclusiveness. The flowers, the tree lined roads, some building with saw dust and the polished stones I bought there. Didn’t worry about any inappropriate behavior or fear of adults. Everyone was kind. The true feeling of joy is missed.

    I also went to the skating rink numerous times on the off days.

  17. kevin stovall says:

    I’m walking down memory lane with my homeboy ed the FBI bertacchi.he says the old fair grounds were so comfortable and inviting to the whole family that the new state fair at the time ushered in the death of the heart of Sacramento and its charm and hospitality! And his comments about cal expo are not printable and all negative……made me miss the old grounds I had never been to…..k.stoval

  18. Sherman Dunmore says:

    My first job was selling “The Sacramento Bee” at the fair. I was twelve years old and a paper boy. This was my first job. I sold enough news papers on the first day work to buy my mother an electric clock. Yes, my first paycheck (tickets) was spent on my mother. This was 48 years ago.

  19. Heather says:

    My Great Aunt’s backyard opened up with a small white picket gate to the Fairgrounds. I have a bronze and brass horse radio which was won from the horse race game by my Dad back in the 40’s I think.
    I don’t like Cal Expo at all.

  20. lisag says:

    From 1957 until 1969 my family lived on T St near Coloma Elementary School. We went out on the carport to watch the fireworks through the trees. Mom loved the races. Got sick on a ride and the man had to stop it. Don’t forget the junior science museum.

  21. Sherman Dunmore says:

    As a little boy I lived three blocks away from fair ground.I remember all of us kids who lived on Santa Clara Way watching Santa Fa trains bringing animals, hobo’s, rides, ect… down 2nd Ave in preparation for the State Fair. Mrs. Marie Potts/Marine Maidu Native Americans family lived next door to me. They danced at the fair on a daily basis. I was blessed to have been brought up watching fireworks from my bedroom window every night.

  22. Linda Baker says:

    I too remember this fairgrounds. I loved the building that had all the displays representing each county in Sacramento. And of course, the great carnival! We also lived close enough that we charged people to park in our small front yard right on the grass! Thanks so much for the walk down memory lane!

  23. Donald Schulte says:

    I remember the there were always marching bands and a stage over by the Counties Building. I think that I saw Lawrence Welk with my grandma there. Does anybody remember “Inky the Snake” at the Junior Museum. I wonder if the Junior Museum even still exists.

  24. Nat Martin says:

    I remember walking to the fair as well. Our grandparnts lived on 43rd. My brothers and I used to ride our bikes on the race track after the fair grounds closed down Thanks for the photo.

  25. Richard says:

    The thing I remember is that there were waterfalls in one of the buildings. I believe that was the hall of flowers that was mentioned in the article. Does anyone have pics or know where to find them on the web of the old state fair?

  26. terry says:

    Hi, can anyone remember if the old state fairgrounds in the early 60’s had auctions of various items? My mother in law can’t remember for sure, but swears thats where she bought her painting….any ideas? Thanks!

  27. terry says:

    Hi, can anyone remember if the old state fairgrounds in the early 60’s had auctions of various items? My mother in law can’t remember for sure, but swears thats where she bought her painting….any ideas? Thanks!

  28. Gary Whitsell says:

    I was born in Sacramanto in 1941 went to Riverside Elementry, Cal Junior High and McClatchy High. Unfornuately all the old stately beatuiful brick buildings were torn down in the early 70s?. Including, Riverside and Crocker elementry schools and Cal JR High. I love the old fair grounds had many a great times. Even when the fair was not in session, the Drag Races and Friday night dances at Governors Hall, danncing to the music of Bill Rase and Orval “Buddy” Harpham orchestras.
    Thanks for your article.

  29. Dora Lipps says:

    I loved the old hall of flowers and the county buildings.If my memory is right, there was a kiosk outside the flowers hall with pretty smelling dried flowers. I always got the lavendar and outside the Counties building a stand that sold the best Chow Mein I ever had. It had been sprouts, not noodles. Was Merlino’s Orange the same thing they sold at the fair. It was sold inside. They were in a cup and solid but melted so nicely. What memories! Thanks!

  30. Jodi Barkley says:

    Hi, Marty–Grandmother took me to the fair in the latter 1950’s, when I was in jr. hi and hi school. Pronto Pups, the counties’ hall, the Hall of Flowers, the evening equestrian shows, the Dance of the Waters at night–all magical.

  31. Keith says:

    Hi Marty…that racetrack at the old fairgrounds must have been something. AJ Foyt won there 5 times back in the 1960’s!!!!!

  32. Cheryl says:

    Thanks for posting that. The Sacramento Old State Fair was a big part of my younger years. Your words brought memories and tears. Thanks 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *