Walking to the old California State Fair

By MARTY RELLES, Valley Community Newspapers columnist


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.


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15 comments so far

  1. Cheryl

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

  2. Keith

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

  3. Jodi Barkley

    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.

  4. Dora Lipps

    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!

  5. Gary Whitsell

    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.

  6. terry

    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!

  7. terry

    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!

  8. Richard

    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?

  9. Nat Martin

    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.

  10. Donald Schulte

    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.

  11. Linda Baker

    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!

  12. Sherman Dunmore

    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.

  13. lisag

    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.

  14. Heather

    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.

  15. Sherman Dunmore

    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.

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