BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Depending on how you count, the Kern County Fair is either 131 years old, 107 years old, 104 or something else. The difference is which county fair you’re referring to and whether you count years that were skipped because of depression and pandemic.
The Kern County Fair, now in its third century of existence in one form or another, once looked much, much different. Not just because it’s in an entirely different location on P Street and not just because some twisted mind had to invent deep-fried Oreos.
Carnival rides, unhealthy food and livestock are some of the main attraction nowadays, but in 1892 when the first Kern County Fair was held, horse racing was one of the big draws.
Fast forward 24 years to 1916, the first year of the Kern County Fair organization that we know today, that’s when the 15th District Agricultural Association, governed by a board of directors appointed by the governor, came into being.
By 1925, the attractions included parachute jumps, aerialists, balloon ascension, motorcycle races, a 15-mile sweepstakes horse race and the first youth livestock auction. Back then, the fair was held on 106 acres of Chester Avenue.
Lorrie Roberts has been working for the fair since she was a teenager. She’s a volunteer these days.
“They were trying to find a location for it and they chose Bakersfield for it because of the friendly people there here and the fact there’s a railroad track,” Roberts said.
In 1926, famed local architect Charles Biggar designed the Fairgrounds first real exhibit building. Handsome, as fairgrounds buildings go these days. Notice the lions guarding the entrance and the distinctive Flemish brick design.
In September 1952, exactly 70 years ago and just a month after the devastating Bakersfield earthquake, the county fair opened at its present location, 168 acres west of Union Avenue and north of Ming. It was just a five-day affair then, possibly owing to the fact that part of the fairgrounds was occupied by local government offices forced outdoors because of earthquake damage.
The fact that they managed to hold a fair at all is remarkable. The fair closed its gates for two years during the 1930s because of the Great Depression, and again in the 2020 because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a portion of the old fairgrounds became the Kern County Museum grounds and Charles Biggar’s exhibition hall became the museum’s maintenance shop.
The Kern County Fair expanded to 12 days in 1983 and it’s been that way ever since, with the exception of 2021, when it was 10 owing to the pandemic’s aftereffects.
For some people affiliated with the fair, the annual event is a generational affair. Blodgie Rodriguez has been coming to the fair since she was a kid, and serving as fair board chairwoman crosses an item off her bucket list.
Rodriguez said things have changed in a big way since Fair CEO Mike Olcott came on board exactly 10 years ago.
“When Mike became our CEO, our cash on hand was $477,000 give or take. This year it’s over $6 million.” Rodriguez said.
Today the Kern County Fair and its five large exhibit buildings, some of them World War II-era Quonset huts, attracts 400,000 people each year from late September through early October. But its beginnings were humble indeed.