It’s been a roller coaster of a ride for our County Fair over the past 133 years. There were good years and bad years, there were war years, and even a year with such a bad water shortage the Fair bosses elected to paint the grass green. A few years back the state of California eliminated 100% of its funding, and now Covid 19 has shut her down.
But in spite of it all we still have our memories, and those memories will have to suffice until the Fair calls all of us back next July with the sounds of the merry-go-round calliope, and the sight of the Ferris Wheel looking down over Highway 49 as we turn onto Plymouth’s main street and look for a good place to park.
As we walk to the entrance, our first glimpse will be of that beautiful Ferris Wheel turning slowly in a never ending circle, and maybe we’ll look over at the dreaded Zipper, straining to reach warp speed, whipping its riders into a screaming frenzy.
Carnivals have always been a part of the ‘fair experience’. The two of them go together like bread and butter or Foley and Burke-two gentlemen who ran the biggest carnival enterprise on the West Coast, and one that entertained the crowds right here at the Amador County Fair for many years.
Back in those early days the carnival travelled by rail, not by truck as most of them do today. Foley and Burke was a 15 car railroad show, and some of the fairs they played included Petaluma, Fresno, Bakersfield, Yuba City and lots of other “tank towns’ in the central valley. They were called ‘tank towns’ back then, because all you could see when the train pulled into the station was the big water tank with the metal funnel that looked like an elephant’s trunk, and was used to fill the steam engine’s boiler.
These carnivals had all kinds of rides with colorful names like ‘The Octopus’ and the ‘The Tilt-a-Whirl’, the ‘Whip’ and ‘The Mind Scrambler’ and ‘The Zipper’. They had side shows that featured magicians, and sword-swallowers and fire-eaters and freak shows that featured fat ladies, alligator men, Siamese twins and ‘pickled punks,’ who were strange creatures brined in salt and alcohol and displayed in 5 gallon tanks-these exhibits were usually fake. Carnivals still travel and play county fairs all over America, but minus the lurid aspect of their past, of course.
And these shows, even today, still retain a touch of the mystery and wonder that made the carnival what it was, and what it still is.
When the Fair is back next year, just take some time and wander around the Carnival grounds and listen to the ‘ballyhoo’ from the pitchmen-and women-as they ‘hawk’ their shows:
‘ ... toss a coin in the jar and win this genuine Minnie Mouse doll!’
‘ ... throw the hoop over the glass and win this special, one-of-a-kind figurine!’
‘Pop the balloon!’ - ‘Knock over the milk bottles’-win this! Win that!
One of my all-time favorites was called ‘Race With The Champions’, and you’d bet on horses with famous names like ‘Whirl-away,’ or ‘Man o’ War’ or ‘Sea Biscuit’ to win. The track was about 20 feet long, and little metal horses, each about 6 inches long, would race down slots in the track.
The race was announced by a behemoth of a man who appeared to be plugged into his seat at one end of the track. I imagine he announced those races a million times, and he spoke in a deep and bored monotone. ‘lt’s Man o’ War in-the-lead. Coming-up it’s Whirlaway. Sea Biscuit is making-a-run. It’s Sea Biscuit by-a-nose.’
And after all those years, I can still hear the ‘outside talker’ pitching his ‘ballyhoo’ to all those ‘rubes’!
‘ ... It’s all here, folks! Cotton candy and the merry-go-round for the little ones, and a beautiful life-size panda bear for the missus I Just hit the bulls eye-a dime a throw! Just one thin dime, folks-one tenth of a dollar!
Those are just a few of the myriad memories we have of the Fair. Remember the little park off to the side of the Main Arena and nearly invisible, that honors some of our past rodeo cowboys? Or the pies and cakes and cookies that won all those ribbons and were entered by Olive Howe every year?
Do you remember talking to Ron Scofield while he was repairing a wagon wheel in the blacksmith shop? While he was fixing that wheel, he probably told you about the wagon train he led to Washington DC. And do you remember sitting on the grass and watching and listening to that unusual musical group, ‘The Spasmatics’, all wired up in splints and on crutches?
I could go on and on, but now I think it’s time to close this little journey into the past-and what better way to close the journey than to remember the three F’s-the Fairs Forbidden Foods! The day’s over, so just sit back and relax and fill your ‘innards’ at the same time with a corn dog, washed down with an Orange Julius, and a Funnel Cake for dessert.
That’s what I’m looking forward to next year at the Amador County Fair, and I can hardly wait!