History of the Marin County Fair Now Online
By Carol Acquaviva
The first Sonoma-Marin Fair was held in Petaluma in 1866. But it would be fifty years before the first Marin County Fair and Harvest Festival, which was organized in September of 1925 at the site of today’s Redwood Highway and Grant Avenue in Novato. Exhibits and competitions focused on agriculture, horticulture, and domestic sciences, but also featured rides, a dancing pavilion, and a community parade. This event spanned four years and was followed by a hiatus that lasted until 1946.
Shortly after World War II, the Marin Art and Garden Center was formed on an eight-acre site in Ross and was composed of eight non-profit organizations brought together by Marin conservationist Caroline Livermore. In September of 1946 the first Marin Art and Garden Fair was held at the new center. Visitors enjoyed booths and attractions focusing on art, floral arrangement and outdoor design.
The fair grew during the next four years, and was held in June and May. Soon an annual theme was chosen and the fair became a Marin tradition, better organized and well-publicized. In 1958, Marcelle McCoy became the manager of the fair and led the fair for 16 years, through many developments and transitions.
The fair relocated in 1971 to the new fairgrounds at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael. The 14-acre lagoon was a centerpiece of the new site; the $3.5 million Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium opened later that same year and the Exhibit Hall in 1976. Cecil Riordan replaced Marcelle McCoy as Fair Manager in 1974, and later that decade the dates changed to the Fourth of July weekend. Fair features in the 1970s included a film festival, fiddle contest, concerts, a carnival, and nightly fireworks.
Yolanda Sullivan was named Fair Manager in 1980. In 1988, filmmaker George Lucas and Lucasfilm were invited to display memorabilia and artifacts from Star Wars and other movies. This interactive “Magic of Lucasfilm” exhibit helped set an all- time attendance record of 106,000 paid admissions, with a total attendance of 130,000. The theme has been continued to this day.
A focus of the 1990s was technological innovation. Fair Manager Jim Farley — who had been involved with the fair since its days at the Marin Art and Garden Center and worked on staff in many capacities since the 1970s — led an era of expansion and innovation, and a tradition of numerous awards and unprecedented popularity and attendance. Performers were spotlighted, with stars like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Peter Frampton headlining.
The twenty-first century began with the hiring of Marin native and longtime local dairy rancher Charlie Barboni as the Fair’s Exhibits Coordinator. Live animals programs beginning in the 1970s with a petting zoo grew into agriculture-based themes at the fair. Barboni’s focus on county fair competitions led to a challenging and fun contests that involved all members of the community, especially families.
Themes of health and environmental concerns were front and center at the fair in the 2000s. The Marin County Fair was the first smoke-free county fair in North America, and the first to not accept corporate sponsorship funding from alcoholic beverage companies. The fairgrounds were also the first of its kind to be certified as a Green Business in the San Francisco Bay Area and produced “The Greenest County Fair On Earth,” celebrating sustainability. The first solar-powered carousel and stage, with a major solar array installed on the roof of the Exhibit Hall, generated 40% of the year-round electricity for the fairgrounds, and a wind turbine was the first demonstration of its kind built on a fairgrounds in the state. A comprehensive composting and recycling service became standard, and food and beverage vendors were required to offer healthy food options on their menus. Huell Howser’s thirty-minute documentary, “The Greenest County Fair On Earth,” was broadcast on PBS stations throughout California.
Since 2015 the fair has seen the momentum continue under the management of Gabriella Calicchio, Director of Cultural and Visitor Services. Produced in partnership with the Marin Cultural Association, the Marin County Fair continues to be the premier community event with over 120,000 visitors each year. This year, the fair is an outdoor-only event, and the theme is “So Happy Together.” The fair runs from June 30 until July 4 and tickets are now available. Visit the fair website for more details.
The Anne T. Kent California Room has a new digital collection representing the history of the Marin County Fair. We invite you to view this collection on our Digital Archive.
The Anne T. Kent California Room acquired the Fair and Cultural Services Collection from the Marin County Cultural Services Department in 2015. Items in this prodigious archive include: photographs, programs, exhibit books, newspaper clippings, posters, pamphlets, ribbons, and souvenirs, reflecting the history of the fair dating back to its first four years in Novato beginning in 1925. Also included are posters, promotional material, and records of performers and events held at the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium and the Exhibit Hall, since its inception in the early 1970s. This archive has been used by research scholars, artists, and community members, and continues to be preserved, organized, and digitized. Special thanks go to Jim Farley and Charlie Barboni for their collecting of the Fair’s history over the years.