By the Paso Robles Area Historical Society and Museum

Since its humble beginnings in the late 1800s, the California Mid-State Fair has grown into a cherished annual event, drawing crowds from all over the state. Located in Paso Robles, this fair has a rich history deeply rooted in the region’s agricultural heritage. From its early days as the Upper Salinas Valley Fair to its transformation into the Mid-State Fair in 1981, this beloved event has consistently captivated attendees with its vibrant displays, thrilling entertainment, and strong community spirit.

The Early Years

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In 1897, the Upper Salinas Valley Fair of the 16th Agricultural District marked the first annual fair for the Central Coast area and the county. Held in a large building occupied by the Grangers’ Union, this event showcased the enterprising nature of Paso Robles’ citizens. The fair continued off and on until the early 1900s, with mentions in local newspapers indicating its significance. The 1901 fair stands out as a pivotal moment, held in an octagonal canvas pavilion in the city park, attracting an immense crowd and closing in grand style.

Forming the Foundation

In 1923, the Paso Robles Athletic and Fair Association was incorporated with the vision of purchasing and improving the Athletic Park, as well as establishing permanent fair buildings. The County Fair shifted between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo for a few years, but in 1942, a group of passionate individuals, including H.H. Burlingham and Herb Sutton, successfully petitioned the state division of fair and expositions to establish a county fair in Paso Robles. The 16th District Agricultural Association was approved, and with funding from various sources, including private contributions, a site was purchased.

The San Luis Obispo County Fair

On September 13, 1946, the fair began its inaugural year under the management of George Stephan. With sawdust-covered grounds, circus tents, livestock shows, and horse exhibitions, the three-day event attracted 20,000 people and 336 exhibitors. The fair rapidly evolved, thanks to state funds that allowed the construction of a grandstand, livestock pens, a rodeo arena, and a race track. Manager Stephan’s dedication to growth and innovation ensured the fair’s success, with increasing exhibitors and premium money each year.

A Decade of Flourishing

In the 1960s, the fair continued to evolve under the leadership of Maynard Potter as manager and Joe Ryan as director of the Fair Board. A new floriculture building in 1960 attracted over 2,000 flower entries, and in 1969, renowned country musician Buck Owens became the first major star to grace the fair’s stages. By the end of the decade, fair attendance reached approximately 40,000.

The Mid-State Fair

In recognition of its growing regional significance, the fair underwent a name change in 1981, becoming the Mid-State Fair. With an extended 12-day schedule and themes such as “A Home Grown Adventure,” the fair attracted well over 500,000 attendees by the end of the 1980s. This decade marked a turning point, solidifying the Mid-State Fair’s position as a premier event on the California fair circuit.

The California Mid-State Fair stands as a testament to the enduring spirit and resilience of the Paso Robles community. Anchored in agriculture and embraced by a vibrant community, the Mid-State Fair remains a cherished tradition.

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