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1936 — A Permanent Home for the Fair

After more than 50 years of on-again, off-again annual county fairs, the San Diego County Fair found a permanent home. On January 23, 1936, North County newspapers announced that a half-million-dollar grant from the Works Progress Administration would build fairgrounds in Del Mar. The impact the project would have on the local economy had sprits soaring.

Construction began at once. It was estimated that 500,000 hours of labor would be required before the completion of the project, and that construction would take nine months. An average of 380 men worked on the project daily, many of them locals from Del Mar and Solana Beach's Eden Gardens.

Architects Joe and Sam W. Hamill were selected to design the Fairgrounds. They designed each building to represent one of the California missions. The ones that went up that first year were the main exhibit building and auditorium, a combination grandstand and utility building, ten livestock buildings, an equipment shed, a main entrance building, and stables to house 600 horses. All of the buildings were made of native adobe, which was mixed and dried on the grounds. An 8-foot-high wall around the plant was made of thousands of those adobe bricks. (A small section of wall still stands.) The final touch was the mile-long oval racetrack, used for harness racing that first year.

Stockbroker William Quigley of La Jolla thought the site would support a major track for thoroughbred racing. The 22nd District Agricultural Association Board gave him a verbal agreement to develop one, so Quigley took his idea to a local horse breeder better known as a singer and actor — Rancho Santa Fe resident Bing Crosby. Crosby not only gave his support, but took the leadership role in making the Del Mar Turf Club a reality.

Within a week of the announcement of the new Fair facility at Del Mar, inquiries poured into the 22nd District headquarters in San Diego's Spreckels Building, requesting details about exhibits, prizes and the general scope of the program. Fair dates were set for October 8-18, 1936. By August, the Fair Board was ready to introduce the plant to San Diegans, and a gala cornerstone-laying ceremony was scheduled for August 20.

California's governor Frank F. Merriam spread the mortar and Frank Y. McLaughlin, state WPA administrator, swung the giant cornerstone into place, at the present site of the Bell Tower. A plaque on the tower indicated it was a project of the Works Progress Administration. (The tower burned down in October of 1969, but was rebuilt.)

As the opening day of the Fair approached, Fred W. Mitchell, who was editor of the Carlsbad Journal, a Fair Board director and head of the Fair's floricultural department, said in his weekly column, "From an agricultural angle, no finer exhibition of farm products will be shown anywhere in the state. Without exception, in every department, it has been necessary to enlarge the exhibit quarters far beyond the plans of six weeks ago. The livestock tent reached its capacity last week and an extra force of men was thrown in to erect special sheds to accommodate 1,500 head of hogs."

Mitchell wrote that all other exhibits also needed extra space as entries poured in, far exceeding what was originally expected. Huge tents went up alongside those already in place. By the time the Fair opened, the exhibit area exceeded 200,000 square feet.

Opening day came on Thursday, October 8, 1936. Governor Merriam arrived (in a stagecoach) to officially open the Fair. He and WPA Administrator McLaughlin spoke before a throng that included federal, state, county and city officials and ranking Army, Navy and Marine officers.

That day and for the next ten, 50,000 people enjoyed music, entertainment, rides, races and exhibits. Headlining the talent presented free to all Fair visitors was Bunny Dryden, ace tightrope walker and movie stunt man. With his pretty blond wife on his shoulders, Dryden walked a tight wire stretched 110 feet above the ground, and performed other breathtaking feats without the protection of a net.

Other attractions at that first Fair included daredevil motorcycle riders, vaudeville and circus acts, amateur contests, special programs for children, fireworks display, and the famous Slide for Life, "a daring thrilling performance from the summit of the grandstand to the midway with human hurtling through space on a small wire."

One of the highlights of the Fair was the contest to select a queen to reign over the festivities. There were three preliminary competitions, with young women from three separate districts of the county competing against each other. Each elimination contest produced three winners. The nine women selected competed in the finals on the last Saturday night of the Fair. Choosing a young woman to reign over the festivities was a tradition until 2004.

There were two concerts daily, with music furnished by the United States Marine Band, the National Guard Band, the Naval Training Station Band, a band of 60 accordions, two or three WPA Federal bands, the Bonham Brothers Boy's Band and other musical groups.

On October 15, Mitchell wrote in the Journal, "...With Bing Crosby acting as honorary steward at the harness races on Friday and Saturday, record-breaking throngs of sportsmen and merrymakers are expected. Attendance at the first San Diego County Fair since 1930 soared past the 35,000 mark during the first week. Fair officials are confident that this figure will be eclipsed during the final three days."

Finally on Saturday night, October 18, the gates closed on the last of the tired but happy Fairgoers. Officials breathed a sigh of relief. A little rain had turned the Fairgrounds into a sea of mud on two or three occasions, but on the whole it had gone well and been acclaimed a tremendous success.

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