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Sunday, August 28, 2005

First Solano fair didn’t fare well financially

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

[email protected]

Early excitement tapered off into surprising deficit

By 1930, most counties in California had established their own county fair. Weir felt that a county fair, showcasing agriculture, technology and local businesses, would be an efficient way to promote Solano County to its own citizens and to California at large.

This is the final installment of the story of David A. Weir’s attempt to create the first Solano County Fair.

With the support by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 2, 1929, and with an opening date scheduled for May 24, 1930, Weir assembled more than 180 community members willing to serve on various committees.

Over the next months, his newspaper, the Solano Republican, published weekly updates. By April, the pace picked up considerably, with new entertainment elements added up until the week before the fair’s opening day. 

Lavish prizes, such as a Hudson Sedan, an overseas trip and diamond rings served as enticement for the “Belles of Solano” Popularity Contest. A statewide contest for a signature song resulted in the composition “Bells of Solano - Song of the Golden West,” with music by Val Valente and words by George Dolbier. The text shows both the haste with which this contest had to be conducted and the romanticized view of early California and local history:

“In days of old, in quest of gold

Came hardy pioneers

From old Monterey to San Pablo Bay

Searching in vain for years

But better far than gold and fame

Came to these pioneers

For the Bells of old Solano

Brought them peace and calmed their fears.

Chorus:

The Bells of Solano Ring out for you and me

Tolling their message of days happy and free

The Bells of Solano bring peace and happiness

Their song of rest is the song of the Golden West.”

On May 1, the Solano Republican announced that each Solano town would be responsible for the entertainment festivities of one day during the nine days of the exposition. On such short notice, towns had to scramble, as can be witnessed by a small article the following week, on May 8.

“Girls needed for Exposition Show,” read the headline. “Several young girls of high school age are needed on a show that is going to be put on at the Bells of Solano Exposition under the direction of J. W. V. A. Schmidt. The latter was chosen by the fair officials to stage a Fairfield night and ‘Jimmy’ says that he needs these girls to take part in singing, dancing and chorus slots.

“Mr. Schmidt can also use any local talent on stunt work. So if you are looking for a chance to take part in this great fair, get in touch with him. Telephone 915, and tell him what you can do. Or go to the Woodard Chevrolet Agency on Texas Street and see him personally.”

Meanwhile, the Belles of Solano Popularity Contest began to heat up. Contestants had to sell advance tickets to the fair. The sales as well as votes by friends and family were tallied.

“Keen Rivalry Is Shown by Girls in Vote-Getting,” wrote the Solano Republican on May 8. “Every contestant in the Big Popularity Contest of the Belles of Solano County is showing determination as the contest progresses. Competition is keen and each entry is out to win the fully equipped Hudson Sedan and first honor, ‘The Belle Of Solano.’ Another big offer is being made the to the contestants up to and including Wednesday, May 21, when a bonus of 50,000 votes will be given to each contestant who brings in $50.00 worth of gate admissions. ...”

A number of the early contestants had already dropped out. Front-runners were Olga Palestini from Collinsville with 900,100 votes, followed by Irene Roberti of Benicia with 306,000 votes. Ethel Valente of Rio Vista (who may have been a relative of composer Val Valente) had collected 297,000. Vacaville’s Dorothy March had 20,200 votes and Dorothy Matthews had 11,000, tying with Fairfield resident Dorothy Mack.

The same issue of the Republican also saw a letter by Weir to the various committees, outlining again the goals for the exposition. This is the first public indication that not everybody was excitedly anticipating the event.

“It has been drawn to my attention that there seems to be some misunderstanding in various quarters as to the aims, purposes and intentions of our County Fair. ...” wrote Weir. “The County Fair originated with the writer. At my invitation some of our leading citizens accepted the moral responsibility of acting upon different committees to further the project, which is certainly a worthy one. However, the impression seems to have gotten started in some manner that the effort is not a county one, and that it is for commercial purposes.

“The Exposition is not a commercial enterprise. An accurate accounting has been kept of all funds received and expended as well as bills contracted. It has been agreed that after the cost of putting on the Fair is covered; all sums remaining will be deposited in a fund to be used to make a permanent county fair in Solano County.

“This fund will be under the jurisdiction of a committee to be selected by the executive committee (perhaps the Board of County Supervisors may be asked to serve in this capacity,) or, if a permanent non-profit fair association is formed, the funds will be made available to that association to carry on the work.”

Weir also added that, “The ground is now being prepared for the Fair, and the management states that canvas will commence to arrive within from ten to fifteen days. The ‘big-top’ used to house farm exhibits, education exhibits, the food show and industrial and automobile displays is reported to be the largest ever used in this section.”

By May 22, two days before the opening, nine contestants had been chosen to represent their towns as Belle: Miss Elsie Castagnoli, Vallejo; Mrs. Ruby Huck, Fairfield; Mrs. Charles Dietrich, Dixon; Miss Dorothy Mathews, Vacaville; Miss Hazel Campi, Cordelia; Miss Georgiana Dally, Elmira; Mrs. Ethel Valente, Rio Vista; Miss Olga Paestini, Collinsville; and Miss Margaret Cavalli, Benicia.

And finally, the grand opening day arrived on May 24. The program for each day was published, taking up the full front page of the newspaper. As planned, each day was dedicated to one of the towns. Vacaville’s day came on Monday, May 26, although the day was also heralded as the State of California Day.

The main feature was “His Excellency Governor C. C. Young as Chief Speaker, accompanied by his personal staff.”

On Friday, May 30, the grand night for the Belles of Solano Popularity Contest arrived. In an elaborate show, which drew a large crowd, Mrs. Ethel Valente of Rio Vista was officially crowned the Belle of Solano County.

Only one accident marred the ceremony. On her way up to the stage, Dixon contestant Mrs. Dietrich stumbled over a tent rope and suffered a fractured left arm.

After the many articles that built anticipation about the fair, it comes as a letdown to find that there is no final article recapping the event itself. On June 5, the Republican announced Ethel Valente’s win in one paragraph and lauds the local talent shows in a small article.

“It is with a great deal of pleasure we are able to state that the outstanding event, of the entertainment furnished for the ‘Belles of Solano’ County Exposition, were the local talent shows, splendid shows being furnished by the towns of Fairfield, Vacaville and Rio Vista.”

The quality of the performances was so good, according to the writer, that some visitors doubted that they were witnessing local talents rather than professional performances.

June 5 also brought publication of the financial statements. Weir, who was the financial backer of the whole event, had envisioned that all profits would be designated as a start-up fund for an annual Solano County fair.

The news must have been devastating for him. At close of business on June 1, 1930, receipt of bills totaled $10,138.25, all of which had already been disbursed to pay bills. A total of $8,515.07 in outstanding bills still needed to be paid.

The Popularity Contest alone cost $1,648.38, plus an additional $2,313.66 for the prizes. Despite more than 20,000 visitors, the exposition was a financial disaster.

Roland R. Mason published a long assessment of the Exposition on June 5, offering both praise and criticism of the event and of the community at large. He announced the fact that event sponsor Weir was facing a severe deficit and explained Weir’s reasons to try and establish a Solano County Fair.

“It might be said that many mistakes were made in the organization and carrying on the exposition,” Mason wrote. “However, they were honest mistakes and not one move in the entire program was of a character which need shrink from the public eye. Two of the most serious mistakes were that the event should have run not to exceed six days and the other was that the dates should have been later in the year.

“As the building of the exposition progressed after its endorsement by the supervisors and the acceptance by around 180 people throughout the county as committee members, opposition was encountered. A most peculiar opposition it was. Nothing tangible and perhaps rather than call it opposition it might be rated as an apathetic attitude upon the part of public officials and many prominent people at large.

“As plans for the fair progressed, the support from within the county dwindled until opening date was reached at which time there seemed to be a fear of liability permeating the atmosphere and the trend was rather one of ‘How may I not become involved?’ rather than ‘How may I help?’ There were some exceptions to this or the work could not have been carried on. These are men in our courthouse who boldly came out and had the courage and foresight to tell the public what the foundation which was being made meant to future county fairs and in the years to come these men will reap their reward when they see a monument to the initial effort of the Bells of Solano County in the shape of a countywide sponsored annual event.

“At any rate, as troopers say, ‘The Show Went ON,’ with the originator of the organization assuming complete personal and financial responsibility, and, while there was little showing of the class of exhibits which are the backbone of county fairs, still many people in the county gave unstinted support and carried on, (it) is the opinion of an observer who has spent many years in such events, The Bells of Solano County Exposition was the most unique affair of this character ever attempted in the west.”

Despite its financial failure in 1930, David Weir’s vision helped plant the idea of an annual Solano County Fair, although it would take years before it became reality.