When the operators of Fairplex — the Pomona complex that has staged the Los Angeles County Fair for 100 years — went searching for a home for the facility’s vast and varied archives, they didn’t have to look far.
Cal Poly Pomona, just a few miles west, would be the ideal steward.
Pat Hawthorne, dean of the University Library, and Katie Richardson, University Library department chair and head of special collections and archives, agreed wholeheartedly. In September 2020, they submitted a proposal to the Fairplex board of directors, citing the fairgrounds’ rich history, close connections in the Pomona Valley and all of Southern California, and the university’s ability to conserve and manage the items for posterity.
In November, Cal Poly Pomona announced that Fairplex had donated its extensive collection of historical records to the University Library Special Collections and Archives.
“With its photographs and other founding documents, this fascinating collection really captures the fair’s rich history,” Richardson said. “Cal Poly Pomona has vowed to preserve the collection and make it readily available to the public.”
For students of the region’s history, the collection will afford hours of delight. Highlights include scrapbooks, Fairplex building plans, promotional materials, drawings of racehorses that sprinted around the on-site track, annual programs, commemorative merchandise, thousands of photos, film reels of the fair and other events, blue ribbons and whimsical iterations of Thummer, the fair’s orange porcine mascot since 1948.
Cal Poly Pomona plans to hire an archivist for the project, which measures more than 200 linear feet and requires 200 record-storage boxes. Richardson expects that it will take the archivist about 14 months to conserve the items in archival boxes and folders, create a “finding aid” — a tool that will aid researchers — and organize the collection for public use. Richardson expects some of the collection to be available for public viewing and scholarly work by early 2023.
“Once the collection is processed, the opportunities for future initiatives are endless,” Richardson said. “We plan to pursue such avenues as instruction modules, exhibitions, oral history projects, lectures and other public programming.”
Founded in 1922 as the Los Angeles County Fair Association, Fairplex has played a crucial role in shaping the region. It has played host to thousands of educational and entertainment events. The LA County Fair, its flagship happening, has welcomed nearly 96 million visitors.
Formerly known as the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, Fairplex today encompasses 487 acres. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 fairs. Starting next year, for the centennial, the fair will move its three-week celebration of agriculture, midway treats and carnival rides to May. Operators had blamed faltering attendance on the scorching temperatures of September, which has been the fair’s traditional month.
Fairplex’s long relationship with Cal Poly Pomona includes showcasing the university’s stunning Arabian horses. The university has also regularly sponsored student art exhibits at the grounds, provided animals for the annual fair’s Big Red Barn display and partnered with Fairplex to hold a STEA2M Fair for thousands of the region’s children. In May, Fairplex welcomed Cal Poly Pomona’s Classes of 2020 and 2021 for drive-in graduation ceremonies.
The amassing and storing of the collection over the years has been haphazard, but the incoming archivist at Cal Poly Pomona will find plenty of material to corral. A Fairplex employee each year saved a couple of examples of programs and other promotional materials. Scrapbooks with worn corners contain thousands of black-and-white photos and sepia-toned newspaper clippings. A red, black, gray and white souvenir program from the fair of Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, 1939, features a sleek black steed. In dozens of photos, smiling women in straw hats pose, seated or lying down, with mounds of carrots, squashes and peppers.
Then there are posters of the wide-eyed, grinning, orange Thummer. Dressed in a dark suit with a red vest, he struts upright, waving one cloven hoof and, with another, grabbing the handle of a suitcase labeled Los Angeles County Fair.
“Items were collected without much of a system,” said Renee Hernandez, Fairplex’s director of communications. The contents of scrapbooks and film reels will be digitized to make them readily accessible for research purposes. Oenophiles will find within the collection a wealth of material about the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya M. Coley praised Fairplex’s decision to donate the rare collection.
“We’re pleased and honored to further tie together our legacies in the region and help preserve a matchless trove of historical records,” said Coley, who is a member of the Los Angeles County Fair Association. “Cal Poly Pomona is truly grateful to Fairplex for entrusting us with this stewardship.”
“From its very beginnings in 1922 in a beet and barley field, Fairplex has celebrated the best of our community,” said Fairplex interim Chief Executive Walter M. Marquez. “This impressive and irreplaceable collection tells the story of a dream made reality. It is a map of how this region was shaped. The history of the LA County Fair and Fairplex — encompassing agriculture, business development and innovative thinking — chronicles 100 years of life in Southern California. The Fairplex team is excited that these important photos, records and artworks will be in a secure place, archived and accessible.”
Cal Poly Pomona Interim Provost Iris Levine hailed the donation as a boon for scholars.
“Bringing this collection to Cal Poly Pomona represents a unique opportunity,” Levine said. “Faculty, students and visiting scholars from a breadth of disciplines will benefit immensely in their research. We look forward to working with Fairplex to host a range of scholarly activities, lectures and other events.”
Heidi Hanson, who chairs the Los Angeles County Fair Association board of directors, praised the university’s eagerness to take on the project.
“We are deeply indebted to Cal Poly Pomona for helping to preserve the historic contributions of the LA County Fair and Fairplex,” Hanson said. “This is a service not only to Fairplex but also to our entire community.”
Thummer would definitely give this development a thumbs up.