A look at county fairs in the recent past
Tomorrow is the last day of the successful 2004 edition of the 17th Agricultural Association’s “Nevada County Fair.” Our first county fair of the modern era was held in1938, in Grass Valley. This paragraph from The Morning Union, October, 1938: “The first annual 17th District Agricultural Association Fair (Nevada County Fair)…will be presented at the Veterans Memorial Building (South Auburn Street) and James S. Hennessy (school) playground October 16-17-18th.”
That fair was limited in scope by today’s standards – a horse show, and beef and dairy cattle and poultry were judged, with “minerals” being a standout feature. Gold production was then the No. 1 contributor to the county’s economy and the fair directors announced $1,500 in prize money in 10 gold divisions.
“It is the plan to work the mineral show into the best exhibit of gold in any fair or display in California,” according to the newspaper story.
Additional competition was in “the flower show, although vegetables in ornamental arrangements will be included in the flower show,” the story continued, and “prizes of $133, will be give the Grass Valley and Nevada City women, as well as those of the rural areas a chance to win some ‘pin money’ and also show the beauties of their gardens.” There was also a “domestic science division.”
There was entertainment by the California Cornish Gold Mining Singers as well as “Amusement … by a high class carnival company.”
Now, let’s go forward a few decades to the 1960s, when the county population was many souls fewer than today, when agriculture was dominant and neighbors competed with neighbors for blue ribbons on a friendly, first-name basis. Back then, preparation of entries was a yearlong undertaking, when most family members were working on an entry or two.
What is a “fair”? According to Merriam-Webster’s® Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, it’s “a competitive exhibition (as of farm products) usually with accompanying entertainment and amusements.”
To that definition we hastily add food and drink. What would our fair be without the great selection of gourmet offerings available along Treat Street? Today, there are many more exhibits of varying content to add to the mix.
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, to the decade of the 1960s, when Malcolm E. Hammill, “Mr. Nevada County Fair,” was the general manager, to the time when the agricultural sweepstakes competition was dominated by produce grown by Val and Lilly Belle Biama on their “Republic of North California” farm on Banner Mountain and by orchardist Ernst Bierwagen on the Bierwagen family’s Chicago Park spread.
Year after year, blue ribbon after blue ribbon, the public was treated to magnificent displays of all manner of fruits and vegetables expertly grown and exquisitely displayed by the above-named agriculturists. Theirs were not the only entries, but many paled in comparison.
“I thought Ernie’s lemon cukes were superior to Val’s,” overheard on the grounds, and the reply, “Yes, but Lilly’s eggplant beats all.” It was an awesome sight watching the judges ponder and mull as they meticulously inspected myriad championship offerings.
The 1960 agricultural sweepstakes went to Val and Lilly Belle Biama. The previous scoring record was 436 in 1959, which was broken with 476 for his 1960 win. Ernie took the horticultural sweeps with Biama second. William Kohler took second in the ag judging and third in horticultural.
The next year the Biamas again captured the ag sweeps, winning 43 blue ribbons in the process. Up to 1961, the Biama’s entries in Placer, Nevada and Yuba county fairs had earned them more than 700 blue ribbons in ag and horticultural judging. Again, that year in horticulture, Bierwagen took first, with the Biamas finishing out of the money.
In 1961, the fair’s board of directors, chaired by Henry Magonigal, did the unthinkable, almost the unpardonable. That year, general admission skyrocketed 150 percent, from 10 cents to 25 cents for adults, with children 12 and under admitted for 10 cents. Parking remained free. A rumor rumbled through the fairgrounds that a pot of boiling roofing tar was seen out by the poultry cages, but it was never proven.
In the 1960s, an unusually creative artist with the unlikely name of Lizzie Glotzmier, a resident of Spain, dominated what was termed “comic entries.” Through her traveling secretary, Dr. Leo F. Conti, Glotzmier took many blue ribbons for her highly imaginative work. One critic observed that “her work contained much soul …” An award-winning entry is pictured.
Malcolm Hammill, the Biamas, the Bierwagens, Dr. Conti, Magonigal and others are gone, but their contributions of excellence to the Nevada County Fair remain and are legends.
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