Cloverdale Citrus Fair: 120 years and counting
As Cloverdale gears up for its 120th annual Cloverdale Citrus Fair, scheduled for February 17-20, it’s a time to look back at the roots of this well loved event.
Cloverdale has the distinction of hosting the first fair of the year in California, as well as one of the state’s longest-running annual festivals.
In the early 1890s, Chrysanthemum Fairs were its forerunners. They were organized by Lizzie and Kate Armstrong, daughters of Col. James P. Armstrong for whom Armstrong Woods is named.
According to a biography by Carmen J. Finley and Doris M. Dickenson entitled “Colonel James B. Armstrong, His Family and His Legacy,” Armstrong moved his family from Ohio to California in 1874. Both his wife and daughter Kate were in poor health, and he hoped the California climate would help them. He invested in local orchard land and Santa Rosa fruit orchards, and established nurseries to study crop plants, starting a lifelong friendship with Luther Burbank.
On January 21, 1893, the first Citrus Fair Association meeting was called to order. A notation in the minutes reads, “There are enough oranges, lemons and olives in the vicinity to make a magnificent display.”
Despite having suffered a stroke in November 1891, Col. Armstrong was elected to be the Fair’s first President. His term was cut short when he was incapacitated by another stroke a few months later.
Other organizers were equally prominent local citizens. W. T. Brush, president of the Bank of Cloverdale and city treasurer, was elected vice president. George A. Baer, owner and editor of the Cloverdale Reveille newspaper, was named secretary. Isaac E. Shaw, president of the First National Bank of Cloverdale, was a director.
The first Citrus Fair was held the following weekend, Jan. 27 and 28, with exhibitors that included James Kleiser, Cloverdale’s founder, and Madam Emily Preston, the charismatic healer who started a utopian community north of town.
In 1897, the event was moved to a large wooden building built especially for the Fair Association on a lot north of what is now Exchange Bank. When it was destroyed by fire in 1909, it was replaced by a new concrete reinforced structure. The Fair moved to its current location on S. Cloverdale Blvd. in 1951.
Since 1924, one of the most popular events has been the Queen Pageant, held on opening night. The first Citrus Fair Queen, Mary Bettini, was chosen because she sold the most tickets. Today, the pageant is a scholarship opportunity for local students ages 16-19, with this year’s queen receiving $1,200.
Elaborate three-dimensional citrus exhibits are trademarks of the Citrus Fair, with many using more than 1,000 oranges. Once the design has been determined and the framework constructed, the oranges must be individually wired to the exhibit and the spaces in between filled with tufting.
Every visible part of the exhibit must be covered with an edible substance or food by-product, such as raisins, coffee grounds or bread.
Volunteers work day and night on them during the three weeks leading up to the Fair, vying for cash prizes of up to $2,500. Saturday morning, rain or shine, the Fair Parade starts at 11 a.m. on W. Third St. and continues south on Cloverdale Boulevard to the fairgrounds.
This year’s theme is Mardi Gras, a celebration of the sights and sounds, the food and drinks that are New Orleans.
Andrew Thierry & Zydeco Magic will put everyone in the spirit Thursday at a Pre-Fair Kick-Off Concert & Dance. Tickets are $15 and include a No Host Bar and appetizers.
The four-day Fair will have something for everyone, from arts and crafts, 4-H exhibits, carnival rides, fair food and wine tasting to performances by the Kodiak Jack Dancers, Zydeco music by Gatorbeat and a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater Saturday and Sunday nights.
For more information, visit www.cloverdalecitrusfair.org or call 894-3992.