Friday, January 07, 2005

The pride of Dixon: May Fair is more than a festival to Solano town

By Sarah Arnquist

DIXON - The Dixon May Fair's arms of influence stretch around more than a century of life in this quiet northern Solano County town.

The May Fair and the town are barely distinguishable as separate entities. No one alive today can remember a time when the May Fair didn't interrupt everyday life with three event-filled days in the spring.

When the fair began in 1876, Dixon had only 1,200 residents, compared to its more than 16,000 residents today. As the town changed through the decades the fair changed, but residents such Carlene Blaylock - who has lived in Dixon all her life - cannot imagine life without the May celebration.

The May Fair is central to life in Dixon, said Blaylock, 67, who at each stage of her life has been involved in the fair.

As a child, Blaylock looked forward to the excitement of the fair.

"When you're a kid, it's magic," she said.

As a teenager, the fair was tons of fun. The May Queen election and the rodeo were grand events, and she spent countless hours creating floats for the annual parade.

As an adult, Blaylock volunteered many times and brings her grandchildren to experience the same magic she did as a child.

"The whole town loves it," she said.

The Dixon May Fair operates as the 36th Agricultural District of California and is overseen by the Division of Fairs and Expositions within the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

A nine-member Fair Board appointed by the governor directs the fair's operations. Fair Manager Mike Green and two additional employees work full-time throughout the year to plan the fair.

In 2002, the fair had an economic impact of about $4.6 million in Solano County. It created 56 jobs and generated $40,412 in local taxes, according to the CDFA.

The CDFA also reported that in 2002 more than 4,000 exhibits sprawled across the fair grounds. Children and adults from around the county bring their livestock, plants and creative arts to display at the fair. The fair also attracts local community and nonprofit groups such as 4-H, which organize and participate in the fair.

The fair's success depends on committed and creative volunteers, Green said.

One of the fair's greatest assets is the nonprofit sponsor organization Friends of the Dixon May Fair, Green said. Chairman Donnie Huffman said the $274,000 the group has raised from alcohol sales over the years all goes back into improving the fairgrounds. The volunteer group donates its time so the fair remains vibrant and full of the traditional small-town feel, Huffman said.

"We try to keep it as close to the old style as we always had it," Huffman said.

Fairs of the past

In spring 1876 Dixon residents wanted an excuse to throw a celebration. The town decided to celebrate the country's 100th birthday, but didn't wait until the traditional July 4. It threw the party on May 1.

The party must have been a good one, because the May Day celebration became an annual event, growing each year with games, activities and picnics, according to the fair's unofficial historian, Ardeth Riedel.

"Any good excuse to gather was a wonderful thing," said 70-year-old Riedel, a lifelong Dixon resident and former fair board member.

By 1886, a few local gentlemen, itching for a place to show off their racehorses, purchased 20 acres at 655 S. First St. to build the Dixon Driving Park. Dixon has celebrated May Day on those same 20 acres since, thus giving Dixon the bragging rights of the having the oldest continuous agricultural fair in the state of California.

Solano County adopted the May Day celebration for its county fair site in 1916. Recognizing the growing popularity of horse racing and a potential source of revenue, California legalized horse-race betting in 1933. Dixon racing flourished and the sport generated tax money which in turn funded fairs all across the state as it still does.

The Dixon Racetrack was one of the few tracks in the state that remained open through World War II. Following the war, county political powerhouses emerged in Vallejo and joined forces to "steal" the fair in the late 1940s, Dixon residents say.

Unwilling to give up their May Day celebration, Dixon formally adopted the name the Dixon May Fair in the early 1950s and continued hosting a full-blown fair. Through the decades the fair has had good and bad years. There have been bleak periods when the future of the fair was uncertain - such as the mid-1960s, when the town rallied together for a letter-writing campaign asking the governor to help save the fair.

Dixon has grown, and new people have moved in, but the fair has largely remained the same, Green said. Dixon shines with small-town charm for the four days in May when the town swells with fairgoers.

Riedel has spent hours recording the fair's history so the traditions and rural aspect of the fair endure for future generations.

"The May Fair has been a part of my life and I think a lot of people here in town want the new people in town to know what it's about," Riedel said.

Future of the fair

The fair always has been a place for children to learn about agriculture, but more recently the fair has assumed the additional role of educating Dixon newcomers, Huffman said.

Dixon has grown by more than 6,000 people since 1990. Many of these new residents come from the city without an agricultural background so, to them, the fair is a place learn where their milk and eggs come from, Huffman said.

"The fairgrounds are another arm of education," he said.

The challenge for the future will be to involve these new residents in the fair while maintaining the fair's rural feeling, Huffman said.

The May Fair's greatest change in recent years came in 1996 when the fair first brought nationally known entertainers to Dixon. Following two rained-out years, the fair emerged from dire financial problems after selling out concerts by Eddie Money and Credence Clearwater Revisited.

"It changed the way we do business, and it was music that allowed us to do that," Green said. "Maybe it could have been something else, but I don't think so."

Strong presales to the 2005 Lynyrd Skynyrd concert saved the fair again this year.

The fair may encounter another great change soon. As part of the Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneger's campaign to downsize and increase efficiency of state government, all fairs may be released from state control and be allowed to operate as private businesses. That would eliminate much of the bureaucratic background work and could prove to be a positive move for the Dixon May Fair, Green said.

"The May Fair could flourish independently," Green said.

Whether the Dixon May Fair will endure for another 130 years is unknown. As Dixon grows and changes, some aspects of the May Fair will certainly change, too. New management may soon take over as Green and his assistant, Dolores Garton, near retirement. Technology will play an increasingly large role in exhibits. Newcomers will come in with new ideas, and events will be added, deleted and renovated.

But the general consensus seems to be that the spark of pride that has compelled Dixon residents to put on the May Fair for more than 100 years will not die out anytime soon.

Reach Sarah Arnquist at 427-6953 or

Fast Facts:

What: Dixon May Fair, California's oldest continuous agricultural fair in California

When: The first weekend in May

Why: For 130 years the Dixon has hosted the agricultural fair and now brings in big-name entertainment like this year's headliner Lynyrd Skynyrd.

More info:


1876: The First May Day Celebration in Dixon.

1886: Dixon Fairgrounds purchased and racetrack built.

1916: Becomes official site of Solano County Fair.

1933: California legalizes racehorse betting and Dixon racetrack flourishes.

1936: Dixon May Day becomes the 36th District Fair Association in California.

1942: Dixon horse racing is one of few to remain open during World War II and attracts people from all of the state.

1950: Political powerhouses from Vallejo arrange for the county fair to change locations.

1950s: Officially called Dixon May Fair.

1960s: Dixon rallies to save the May Fair.

1996: May Fair enters the music entertainment business.

2005: May Fair brings back the demolition derby.

Who: Dixon May Fair Manager Mike Green

A self-described "jack of all trades," Green oversees the year-round planning of the Dixon May Fair. In his 11 years at the helm of the May Fair, Green's largest move has been to shape the fair into an event that draws nationally known musical talents such as Faith Hill and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Green, 64, saw his first May Fair as a child growing up in Fairfield in the 1940s. Then in high school, the fair really grabbed his attention.

"It was the place to go to meet pretty girls," Green said.

Green came to the May Fair knowing little about livestock and agriculture in 1993, but his 10 years as a designer at the Nut Tree in Vacaville trained him to plan and market big events, he said.

Along with his business assistant, Dolores Gorton, and grounds manager, Bob Botana, Green oversees the fairgrounds and organizes the four-day event that has a yearly operating budget of almost $1 million.

The fair today "has pretty much become an extravaganza," Green said.

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