OC Fair time again. My three teenagers scramble off to spin upside down at two Gs with their bellies full of brisket, grilled corn, and ice cream. I head into my own quiet bubble: The exhibit buildings. ¶ Air conditioned. Teen repellent. A place where space is still given to the scintillating art of table settings. That cool cavern where nobody’s going to
peel another dollar out of my wallet.
The fair is 125 years old this year, making it one of our oldest local rituals. Ex-hibits used to be the centerpieces of most county fairs, back to ancient times when fairs began as harvest events. Our first county fair was a horse race with a few exhibits, held in 1890 on Bristol and Edinger in Santa Ana.
Nowadays, rides and food vendors are the primary attractions. But to me, the exhibits are the soul of a fair: the golden lights and warm animal musk of the stables at night; the intricacies of a single crocheted napkin; the wow of the biggest zucchini. It’s a more popular deal than you might think. The fair hosted more than 16,000 such displays last year.
And the ribbons! Those glorious, fat, gathered ribbons. Some people compete in the exhibits just to score one. They’re a chance for anyone to be someone.
Home arts such as baking and needlework can be lonely enterprises. But at the fair, craftspeople always find each other. They did so even before social media made finding like-minded souls easy. For a few years, the craft exhibits featured a knitting lounge, where experienced knitters gathered to help novices. One patient gentleman would spend hours with anyone who wanted to learn. And as on the Internet, anyone can exhibit at the fair. They don’t have to belong to a guild or a group.
The collections exhibit attracts the most eclectic and eccentric entries. Take the squeeze balls of a few years ago. Or the assemblage of found notes—dry-cleaning receipts, missing-pet fliers, grocery lists—all scooped up from gutters somewhere. There was that year someone entered his lifelong collection of pantyhose.
But people also entrust their high-end scrimshaw or Disney memorabilia to the fair’s locked cases. The wearable art section last year produced a strapless dress made of origami and a gown made of plastic zip-ties. The competition is intense and the quality high in fine arts and photography; the wine awards confer a marketing bump; and the 4H and Future Farmers of America OC Chapter kids put long hours into their animals.
Joan Hamill, the fair’s community relations director who has nurtured the ex-hibits for about 20 years, says the fair tries to stay abreast of trends, eliminating some and adding others. In recent years, it has expanded the cupcakes and the preserves. Honey went away, and now it’s back.
“You think of all those very traditional home arts, and you think, ‘Are people really doing those in Orange County?’ And the answer is ‘They are,’ ” she says. “We’re seeing a resurgence in the culinary arts, especially in preserves.”
When I visited the restored home of Cathy Glasgow in Old Towne Orange, fair ribbons were on prominent display. Some of them were blue.
Glasgow, a sun-bleached blonde of 58, and her daughter Louise, 25, already were starting to collect memorabilia for “The Three Caballeros,” Louise’s entry in this year’s Fiesta theme in the table-settings contest. Louise, who is high-functioning developmentally disabled, has found in the exhibits a way to share her creativity with the world. She, her mother, and grandmother haunt the vintage shops in Orange Circle, looking for the perfect addition to their table settings. Credit this attention to detail for all those ribbons.
“The exhibits are about people’s personal time,” says Cathy, who started doing exhibits in high school and enjoys them so much that she’s now one of the fair’s part-time exhibit specialists. “It’s people putting in lots of personal time to produce something just because they love doing it.”
Glasgow, a retired educator and biologist, now specializes in the fair’s bug exhibits; her displays always attract attention because she’s there showing off her live scorpions and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Her 79-year-old mother, Eleanore Pleines, competed in the well-known OC Fair baking competitions of the 1960s. She still enjoys them, saying, “It makes me feel like we’re still in touch with a big part of our heritage.” She shows me a group shot of an early 1960s citrus baking contest (sponsored in part by Sunkist) in which contestants were required to do their baking in front of a live audience to ensure they were the actual bakers.
Such competitions are more intense than many visitors think, says Louise Glasgow. Rules allow her mom to help carry in the boxes from the car, but that’s where the help stops. It’s not a team contest; when the actual competition begins, she’s entirely on her own. And it’s not as easy as it appears. In the table-settings competition, contestants must arrange their settings based on specified menus. Louise says, “Everything has to be in the proper place,” down to measuring the 45-degree angle between the wine glasses and the water goblets. For her, it’s all about the three months of preparation and planning.
Hamill says the exhibits give us a glimpse into who we are today. And who are we? We’re woodworking, fine woodworking. We’re jam. Lots and lots of jam, though not necessarily made with backyard fruit anymore. We’re home-grown tomatoes.
If our output has dwindled, we’ve remained more agricultural than we appear—and maybe more than we know.