Rituals: Orange County’s Homegrown Hillbillies

Celebrating the Old West in a funky, canyon way

The annual Silverado Country Fair strives to be a reenactment of 19th-century boomtown canyon life in Orange County, but it doesn’t stay on script. (We somehow doubt there were dog-kissing booths or hot rods at old-time country fairs.) But while the Silverado fair falls short as a replica, it’s close to achieving something better: an emotional reenactment.

Rather than seeing some phony version of Old West life staged in the canyon, you feel it. Everything at the fair is homemade, hand-built, and recycled. There are no outside contractors; the neighbors do all the work. In a cloud of heat, a blacksmith pounds out horseshoes. Children run around in floral headdresses. You’ll find displays of artifacts made of turquoise and animal skin. A petting zoo features farm animals, and the fry bread is made by members of the Acjachemen nation.

There’s not too much to buy, but if you really want to, how about those miniature fairy scenes made of acorn caps and twigs? When my kids asked someone last year where they could find the rides (seeing no G-Force or Disko on the horizon), we were directed to a primitive dunk tank. They could choose to be the dunker or the dunkee.

Our naturalist friend, the barefoot Joel Robinson, lives in a tributary of Silverado Canyon. With his wife, Leslie, and other neighbors from the community of about 1,500, he helps run a crafts booth where kids can sew authentic 19th-century rag dolls, create art from native gourds, dip candles, punch tin-can lanterns, and craft button necklaces.

“This,” he says, “is how backwoods people do a party.”

 

The fair started in 1970 to help victims of a canyon flood, and proceeds still go to charitable causes. The flood and the fair helped bring together a canyon that was in the midst of change. Dissension was growing in the late ’60s. The back-to-the-land movement was in full bloom, and hippies were moving in among older canyon residents who weren’t thrilled about the peace-and-love incursion. The first fair helped unite the groups.

Recent disasters were still on everyone’s minds last year when I visited. Only a month had passed since many residents faced mandatory evacuations because of the September 2014 Silverado fire, and four years had gone by since a flood in December 2010 brought mudslides. While those regularly occurring natural disasters bring people together, just scheduling the fair in October is an act of extreme optimism.

Fair organizers are adamant that politics stay out of the event, but this month it’ll be tough to ignore their latest antagonist. The new St. Michael’s Abbey High School is underway at the edge of the fairgrounds, and some locals vow to continue fighting it even as the grading continues.

If there was a conflict between the old guard and the new hippies at the birth of this fair nearly half a century ago, my friend Chay Peterson says she doesn’t see it anymore. The hippies have won the day.

“People all over the county are walking around trying to be hillbillies,” says Peterson, who starts planning the fair with her husband, Brett, and their longtime neighbor Jane Bove in June. “We want to drag them up here and show them what it’s really like to be hillbillies.”

 

The fair opens on Saturday morning with Rusty Richards, a homegrown singing cowboy and 20-year veteran of Roy Rogers’ famous Sons of the Pioneers, scheduled to saddle up and lead the traditional Un-Parade. (Anyone can march in the Un-Parade, though they prefer you sign up at silveradocountryfair.org.)

Chay Peterson shows up in a covered wagon tricked out with racing tires, pulled by a tractor. Also marching is a dog named Max, who will reappear later at a fair booth where you can kiss him for a buck. For many years, the parade has featured Wild West characters robbing patrons at the Silverado Market and the Cafe.

“We steal beer and a bottle of whiskey, too,” Peterson says. “But we always come back and pay for it later.”

No one seems concerned with breaking the fourth wall on the Western theme, as there often are collector cars in the parade, including hot rods and several from a Model T club. A homemade Western town and stage hosts some really good local music (hear a little of it on the fair website), and inevitably there’s some robust dancing under the stars.

“For me, the fair’s about keeping the cultural history conversation going—the conversation of the canyons,” Peterson says. “We can preserve that up here and not let our canyons become just another upper segment of Irvine.”

She says a new generation of bohos is snapping up the charming little cabins before they’re priced out of sight, and she feels upbeat about the future of the canyon. I wish I could be as optimistic. I watched Laguna Beach go from affordable-funky to high-class hippie to rich commuter. I fear the same thing will happen to Silverado: Climbing real estate values will price out the real bohos and leave us with the phonies.

And to be honest, I’m not so sure the primary foe is developers. Sometimes I fear the canyon will become a victim of its own undeniable charm.

Be There!
The Silverado Country Fair will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 10 and 11 at the Silverado Community Center, located one mile into Silverado Canyon. This year’s parade runs between 9 and 10 a.m. on the first day. Dress “hillbilly Western,” or not. A Saturday night music festival ($5) begins at 5 p.m. Silverado Community Center, 27641 Silverado Canyon Road. Adult admission, $5; children 4 to 12, $3

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