The San Mateo County Fair

Last Friday, our whole family went to the opening evening of the San Mateo County Fair. We were delighted with it. It had all a county fair ought to have: livestock exhibits, a pony ride, home arts competitions, a bustling midway, kiosk food, and vendors exhibiting rarely seen products.

To explain why we found the San Mateo County Fair so fabulous, you have to understand how thoroughly lame our own county’s fair is. A few years ago, Peter and I thought it would be a great lark to compete in the baking competitions in our county fair. Peter made his finska kakor cookies and a Danish puff pastry, while I submitted my strawberry jam and some decadent chocolate cookies made with toffee candy bar chips.

We were excited to see how we’d done, so that evening, when it had cooled enough to excuse walking on asphalt, we headed over the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. However, we weren’t allowed in: apparently, even though the fair ran until midnight, it was on a sort of lockdown after 7 pm, at which point no one was allowed in. We thought that was weird: after all, some fair goers go exclusively for the midway, which is most spectacular at night, when you can enjoy the lights on the rides. At 7 pm, on an August night, the sun had yet to set.

But even as we pleaded with the stern San Jose policeman to just see our exhibit entries, there was no getting in, so we went the next day. Getting in was as unpleasant as being locked out: not only were our bags searched on the way in, we were all (included Neil) patted down for weapons, while an officer wearing a shirt that said PAROLE stared us down. I’ve never gone into a prison, but that’s probably what the experience is like. A young man in line in front of us had to take off his red shirt and put it in his car before he could come in: luckily, he had a black shirt he could wear instead.

On the performance stage, some children were singing loudly, badly, and extremely off-key. We quickly skedaddled away to the exhibit halls. We were thrilled with our wins (one first place, two seconds, and a third) but we didn’t really have a lot of competition. The hall was also not air-conditioned, which in San Jose’s typical 90 degree summer heat, made it stuffy, and when we picked up our exhibits after the fair was over, Peter’s Danish puff had already started getting fuzzy. There was a little “find agricultural treasures” game for the children, and a small hall of vendors, but little else to keep our interest. The rides were overpriced; the livestock was visibly suffering in some old stalls shoved on the furthest possible hidden corner of the fair; and the cops were everywhere looking like they dearly wanted to find some gangbangers to pound on. If you even wanted to have a beer, you had to have it sitting right at the bar while a policeman stared at you the entire time you were there. Oh, and as for the entertainment–well, the screeching kids were it.

After that, we got our county fair jones on by going to the San Benito County Fair and the California State Fair. The San Benito County Fair is pleasant, comfortable and homey, set as it is in rural Hollister, an hour and half away. The stage entertainment has ranged from still-going 80s rock band Starship to truck pulls: good enough to draw people in, unlike tone-deaf children. The California State Fair is even better. Despite the 2-1/2 hour drive to get there, we’ve gone to it multiple times the last few years. It really has something for everyone: it’s like an amusement park, music festival, vendor show, arts & wine festival, children’s carnival, wild west petting zoo, fireworks show, and more all wrapped into one as a massive celebration of everything California and Californian. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but you can say that about California, too. In any case, it’s well done, and Peter was inspired to even compete there last year, even though it involved a long drive on every competition day.

So why is the Santa Clara County Fair so incredibly lame? The organizers of the fair always have some excuse, while constantly working to make the fair even lamer, and threatening to close it all together if more people don’t come. Last year, I thought they had ended the county fair, when they turned it into a “youth fair,” that excluded adults from competition, and as far as I know, excluded everything else worthwhile, too. I think its highlight was a kiddie hot dog eating competition. So we were surprised when they returned this year as a county fair again, and came up with the same list of excuses for the low attendance they’re always had, from local residents are too busy to it’s too hot.

My friend Rick said the Santa Clara County Fair’s problems stem from a gang shooting that took place there years ago. But if going to the fair is like going into a high-security jail, only the people who are comfortable going into jails are going to go there.

And so back to the San Mateo County Fair. San Mateo County, if anything, is more urban and sophisticated than Santa Clara County. The fair was packed the night we went, and the fair will be running for 2 weeks instead of the 4 or 5 days the Santa Clara Fair ran this year. San Mateo County has less rural farmland than Santa Clara County, but it had no trouble recognizing and celebrating what it did have. Since there are a fair number of wineries in Half Moon Bay and along the coast, it had an amateur vintner competition, and there’s even a winery at the San Mateo county fair that lets you bottle your own wine for $15/bottle. There were plenty of animals, including some baby camels, which I’ve never seen at a county fair. The culinary arts competition was impressive as well: the top prize winner in the cake decorating competition was an amazing work of art beyond even the top winners in the state. The Half Moon Bay 4-H group was selling baked goods, and the competition had included a childrens’ portion where children submitted their Lego or K’Nex dioramas for county-wide admiration. Oh, and just for going and stopping by the Bay Meadows booth, we also received two free tickets to the horse races at any time.

And as for the geeky aspect of Silicon Valley? The San Mateo County Fair had that covered way better than the Santa Clara County Fair, which thought a logo of a cow wearing a pocket protector, and a pig holding a laptop computer would bring people in one year. The San Mateo County Fair encircled the outside portions of the vendor exhibits with hands-on childrens’ science museum and reptile exhibits including a few touch tanks.

Entertainment wise, the calendar had a variety of acts I’ve heard of, from old bands like REO Speedwagon to more contemporary acts like Blue October. We saw a local band the night we were there, right next to a stunt bicycle exhibition that gave the show the feel of being a Guitar Hero festival venue. We saw uniformed San Mateo police here and there, but they were a subtle presence, as they ought to be at such things. And security going in only involved letting a security guard look inside my backpack, and when she told me drinks weren’t allowed, she still let me go in with an opened diet Coke.

The San Mateo Fair is a visible retort to the Santa Clara County Fair’s organizers. It is possible to have a fun, popular county fair in Silicon Valley. In any case, I know which fair I’ll be attending in future years.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Bell

    Hate to tell you, but my children were subjected to a screeching gate guard’s search and seizure of contraband as vile as (gasp) water bottles when they visited the San Mateo County fair this year. My sons’ competitive entries, which were written about in both the Mercury News and the SM County Times, were nowhere to be seen in the department they won awards in; neither did he receive the ribbons or cash premium he was entitled to for his winning entries. The management at the fair was hopelessly incompetent, never advised entrants of cancelled events (there were several) or returned phone calls. We finally gave up after being told the fair’s coordinator had taken a week off, the last week the fair office was open, for his own “sanity.” I’ve participated in the fair for 35 years, my kids have volunteered their time for at least ten of those years, and this was by far the most poorly managed SM fair I’ve ever witnessed. Leads me to believe, as soon as the Bay Meadows Developement Project goes through and demolishes our historic racetrack, the fair will go the way of all.


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