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Sunday, August 14, 2005

County’s first fair boasted fairly ambitious fare

Sabine Goerke-Shrode


Belle of Solano competition was real bellringer

Named “The Bells of Solano County Exposition,” it took place in Fairfield in late May 1930. The initial idea for this event came from Solano Republican publisher David A. Weir. His goal was to combine his newspaper’s 75th anniversary with a large, agriculture-oriented fair showcasing the county.

The ambitious plans quickly grew to include band music, a contest for an elaborate Pageant Play, a contest for a signature music composition, and a competition among female contestants for the title of “Belle of Solano County.”

Much of the planning seems to have come about at a late stage, judging by the dates of the Solano Republican’s announcements for each new part.

While Sheriff John Thornton acted as the chairman, Weir clearly was the driving force, using his newspaper as the marketing tool for every aspect of the event.

The beauty contest, or “Popularity Contest,” as the Solano Republican labeled it on April 10, 1930, quickly assumed not only countywide interest but attracted “the attention of the people of neighboring counties by reason of its connection as an integral part of the Bells of Solano County Exposition, the fact that the list of prizes being offered starts with an automobile of well known make in all its beauty of late model engineering is stimulating local interest everywhere. A Hudson Sedan is the first prize.

“Happy, indeed, will be the ‘Belle’ who is to receive the first prize ...”

Beyond the promise of a car, the Belle of Solano would also be honored as the representative of Solano County on a trip to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Chicago and other points of national interest, according to the newspaper. The chosen Belles of Fairfield, Vacaville, Vallejo, Dixon, Benicia, Rio Vista, Elmira and other locations would compete against each other and be selected by public vote during the fair itself.

“Entries are coming in every hour,” continued the Republican on April 10, “and the starting bell for the big campaign will sound any moment ... Readers of this newspaper may also telephone in to Fairfield, 390, their own name or the name of any friend whom they wish to have nominated.”

In case that such a nomination might raise concerns, the newspaper also promised that “Names of nominators will not be given out to any nominees unless the nominator wishes to have it so made public.”

Despite the short time frame and the many “Doubting Thomases,” the first signature piece of the event was ready by April 17. On that day, The Republican let its readers know that the music piece contest, which had been announced on Feb. 20, had been won by well-known musicians Val Valente and George Dolbier.

“On Sunday evening and again on Tuesday evening, over Radio Station KFRC, of the Don Lee system, a farreaching broadcast of one theme song and orchestration by Val Valente and George Dolber, coming from the Roof Garden Cafe, San Francisco, brought The Bells of Solano County Exposition to the attention of tens of thousand ... “

Val Valente and his band also were scheduled to perform the music piece at a complimentary concert during the exposition. The following week, the first round of contestants for the Belles competition congregated on the steps to the county courthouse. Somewhere between the announcement and this date, selection criteria had to have been distributed to contest applicants.

Each contestant needed to collect a minimum of 5,000 nomination votes to be able to take part in this first round.

“With a big crowd of onlookers and with newspaper and moving camera pictures clicking, the beautiful contestants in the Belles of Solano Popularity race were reviewed at Fairfield last Saturday afternoon,” said The Republican on April 24. “The girls were all specifically costumed, representing Greek and Roman mythological as well as modern characters.”

Contestants from Vacaville included Miss Dorothy Matthews, Miss Eleanor Ver Vaecke and Miss Dorothy March. Suisun sent Miss Helen Emmington, Miss Billy Armstrong, Miss Eleanor Boyle, Miss Geraldine Walters, Mrs. Gertrude Duren, Miss Rose Pollard, Miss Eva Wood, Miss Annie Chrisler, Mrs. Eva Lorensen, Miss Mildred Storey and Mrs. Mary Baker.

The largest contingent naturally came from Fairfield and included Miss Bessie Rogers, Miss Fred Wright, Miss Hazel Sheldon, Miss Grace Maves, Mrs. May Witt, Mrs. Winnie Beck, Miss Helen Mortensen, Mrs. Beatrice Sweeney, Miss Juanita Gregory, Miss Francis Freitas, Miss Velma Klusman, Mrs. M. P. Farbina, Miss Bessie Lambrecht, Miss Eunice Lentz and Miss Margaret Madsen.

According to The Republican, the popularity contest so impressed a prominent publicity man from San Francisco that he is quoted as saying: “I have had my curiosity aroused about Solano county through the items I have read on the Bells of Solano County Exposition, and this turnout of girl contestants certainly speaks well for a livewire organization. I will say frankly that while I have lived in San Francisco for years this is the first time that Solano county has been brought particularly to my notice, though I have passed through it many times. I can conceive of nothing that would bring as much state and nationwide publicity for the county as such an effort.”

Hiring a famous writer for the exposition staff, as announced on April 24, also was meant to help to finally put Solano County on the map.

“With a determination not to hide their light under a bushel, the geniuses who are directing the destinies of The Bells of Solano County Exposition ... today announced that they have added Gilbert G. Weigle, famous feature writer of San Francisco, to their staff.”

The committee chose Gilbert Weigle who wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, while compiling research reports for the City of Berkeley and teaching journalism at the University of California Extension in Berkeley. He was also connected with William Randolph Hearst’s plan, never to be fulfilled, to restore all the historic Missions in California. With his expertise, the exposition committee felt that their success in spreading the news was assured.

The deadline for the Popularity Contestants to bring in their votes approached quickly. On May 1, The Republican announced that “Contestants Are Opening A Hot Campaign For Big Awards In Popularity Contest ...

“For the hustler there is a prize, a prize worth working for, a fully equipped Hudson and a trip throughout the east and for a second award, a trip to Honolulu, then radios, diamond rings and cash prizes for those who are willing to work.” And it was work, indeed.

“Monday, May 5th, ends the big bonus vote offer. Those who realize this opportunity here are the ones who will be warded the big prize and the high honors. During the period from now until Monday, every moment you do not spend in getting votes is lessening your chance for the Bells of Solano awards, and every moment that you do spend in this profitable work is going to better your chances of being ‘Miss Solano.’ Think this over.

“Don’t just drift along, taking what votes that come to you, but you must work. Personal solicitation is the only way to get real results that will bring the big prize of ‘Miss Solano’ to you. The effort put forth in the few days will effect the final results. Get busy.”

Soliciting votes is never an easy thing to do, and the list of contestants had shrunk considerably. Vallejo still had eight contestants, Benicia three, Rio Vista, Elmira and Collinsville one each.

From Dixon came Mrs. Chas Dietrich, Miss Irene Roberti, Miss Florence Ashby and Miss Ailean Maskmeyer. Fairfield and Suisun had one entry each, Miss Dorothy Mack and Miss Billy Armstrong. From Cordelia came Miss Hazel Campi, and Miss Elaine Wilson from Grizzly Island.

The three Vacaville contestants, Miss Dorothy Matthews, Miss Dorothy March and Miss Eleanor Ver Vaecke, were also busy collecting further votes. And in true form, on May 1, the Republican also announced a new feature for the exposition:

“Each Town To Put On It’s Own Show.” According to the writer, each of the County’s towns would get one day during the exposition, starting on May 24, to “furnish talent for various forms of entertainment, the Belle selected from that particular community will be paid homage and properly honored and features giving prominence to the section represented will be had.”

Not surprisingly, the article ended optimistically “The Exposition office is a beehive of activity these days and everything points to an unqualified success in this first Countywide Fair.”


The California State Fair at Sacramento’s Cal Expo opened its gates to the public Friday and runs through Sept. 12. This year’s Solano County State Fair, while not as multifaceted as the Bells Of Solano County exhibit, promises to be as spectacular and entertaining (and hopefully award winning) as it has been in recent years. Don’t miss this entertaining family outing.