This year, the California State Fair—touted as the State Fair & Food Festival—runs from July 14 through July 30. As in past years, the Fair features competition among food vendors that sell goodies from tacos to BBQ; deep fried apple pie to ice cream. The Fair also offers awards for California-produced wines, beers & cheeses; offers crafts and livestock exhibits and cooking challenges—and as always, in modern times, horse races and a glittering Midway.
Since the American Civil War, fairs have gotten away from their original purpose: to educate, enlighten, and generally serve the interests of the farmer. The California State Fair has its origins in the dream of one man to encourage and develop the state’s agricultural potential. His name was James Lloyd La Fayette Franklin Warren, a horticulturist and merchant from Massachusetts who came to California in 1849 as a gold rusher.
After operating a store at Mormon Island, an important mining town, James moved to Sacramento where he opened two side-by-side storefronts downtown on J Street. As Warren & Company, he sold general merchandise, groceries and miner’s goods. His New England Seed Store next door offered seeds, shrubs, fruit and ornamental trees, and bulbs.
In 1852, Mr. Warren sponsored an exposition he called the Great Agricultural Fair at his New England Seed Store, featuring nursery products and mineral collections. He offered prizes for outstanding entries, and lectures on various agriculture-related subjects. The venture was so successful that he held a larger show in San Francisco the following year, and relocated there permanently after his nursery was destroyed in Sacramento’s April 1853 flood.
In December 1853, James Warren announced he would publish The California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, to supply readers with the most practical and useful techniques for farming. Undaunted by the fact that legislative representation of mining districts outweighed that of agricultural interests, Warren lobbied and prodded legislators, arguing that it was absurd to continue spending millions of dollars annually on imported foods when more efficient agricultural programs would produce abundant supplies.
Because of his efforts, the legislature created the State Agricultural Society in 1854, which annually sponsored agricultural, mining, and livestock competitions for decades at the state fairgrounds. Over the years, the Society’s successor agencies evolved into the current California State Fair…which today offers more in food and entertainment to the general public, while still honoring agricultural and animal husbandry interests.