One of the most unique features of Mendocino County is its continuing significance as an agricultural community, which traces back to the area’s earliest history. From the mid-1800’s onward, settlers grew the majority of their food and raised livestock for the region’s geographically isolated cities and hamlets. Ukiah’s Redwood Empire Fair and Event Center continues to be a touchstone, bridging the past to the present.
Established in 1936 by the 12th District Agricultural Association, the Fair and Event Center attracts over 250,000 visitors per year. The fairgrounds were originally located south of Ukiah, according to CEO Jennifer Seward. “Originally, when the Fair was relocated to our permanent home, there was a half-mile thoroughbred track on the grounds for horse racing. People came from all over the country for the races, which continued until sometime in the early 60’s.”
The current 52-acre location consists of six major buildings offering more than 36,000 square feet of gathering space, which is used by the public and local groups for annual fundraisers, music events, weddings, trade shows, quinceañeras and much more.
There are four schools on the grounds, and the bi-annual Redwood Region Logging Conference has been a significant community anchor event for decades. “The Logging Conference draws about 2,000 kids from all over the county as well as the public, who enjoy a host of exhibits, equipment and educational components you would never get a chance to see – things like ax throwing, log rolling and chainsaw carving,” says Seward. “This is a large community fundraiser, with the proceeds going to forestry-related scholarships.”
Fairgrounds have always been community gathering places, and for over 80 years, the Redwood Empire Fair has responded to the changing needs of a growing community. The Fair is governed by a nine-member board appointed by California’s governor.
As the largest event venue in Mendocino County, the Fairgrounds continues a tradition of supporting everything from old-fashioned carnivals to acting as a temporary home for wildfire victims. During the devastating 2017 fires, the Fairgrounds instantly transformed into a command center and staging area for Cal Fire employees and other firefighters and support staff deployed from outside areas.
Additionally, during last year’s fires, located less than 30 minutes from downtown Ukiah, over 300 horses, livestock and other large animals were evacuated to the fairgrounds until they could be re-homed or reunited with their owners. And even months after the deadly fires, Seward and her staff are still providing support. “We are proud to be hosting 26 families affected by the fires through a FEMA relocation program,” she continues.
Years ago, Ukiah had a thriving high school band program. An annual Band Review brought dozens of schools to town, to march in a parade, compete for band awards and participate in high-profile parade and music events throughout the state and beyond. The Fairgrounds’ Spring Fair was created in 1970, built around the Band Review. Though most high schools no longer offer band classes, the Spring Fair has prevailed. This year it is scheduled for June 1, 2, and 3, and will feature a traditional carnival, commercial exhibitors and food vendors.
The four-day Redwood Empire Fair takes place August 2-5. It is one of the county’s biggest and most anticipated annual attractions. “People come to the August Fair to participate or just to enjoy the carnival with family and friends,” says Seward. This year’s theme is “Blue Jeans and Country Dreams.”
Along with about 200 vendors, 3,000 individual exhibits will be on display: everything from paintings, pies, photographs, canning, produce, cut flowers and quilts. “All the wonderful crafts exhibited at the Fair are created by local artisans and judged by professional judges, with cash prizes and ribbons awarded to the winners.”
The August Fair is also the host for the region’s annual Junior Livestock Auction and Breeding Show. “This is an opportunity for young people to show a variety of livestock animals, including poultry, rabbits, steer, lambs, goats, swine and dairy cattle,” says Seward. Future Farmers of America and 4-H members come from far and wide to compete against their peers and enjoy a weekend of funnel cakes, thrill rides, and family fun.
The Livestock Auction garners wide community participation. “Approximately 20 years ago, our livestock auction grossed $230,000. Last year, with the same animals, the auction grossed $800,000,” Seward notes. “Our community really supports these youth agriculture programs, and the kids work hard on projects that positively affect the community. Auction proceeds go toward college funds, vocational training, paying local feed and veterinary bills and purchasing vehicles and equipment, all of which helps to support our local economy.”
In the 1970’s, the Ukiah Speedway, a quarter-mile paved car track, was installed. The Speedway is a major attraction during the August Fair. “In the early days, the Speedway was home for street stocks, bombers, modified racing, and luckily for us, many of those activities have continued,” Seward notes.
“The Speedway holds the largest 4WD Mud Bog series on the West Coast, with nearly 100 participants, and we have one of the largest truck and tractor shows in the region. The car races always pack the grandstands on Sunday nights, and if you’ve never seen our super-popular boat races, make sure not to miss the fun,” Seward smiles.
The August Fair always features great local entertainment, including some of the area’s best bands and the popular “Ukiah Idol” competition. “For over a decade, the Ukiah Idol Competition has been one of the capstones of the Fair. It showcases some of our most amazing local talents, from kids to seniors.”
Seward has been with the Fair for 19 years. “Fairs are a reflection of their communities’ growth and progress. They celebrate our history and our heritage. They provide educational inspiration for our youth and wholesome, family-oriented entertainment for all ages. I am totally blessed to work with an amazing group of board members, and to serve our community and the public in this way,” Seward concludes.
The Redwood Empire Fair and Event Center is located at 1055 N. State St., just north of downtown Ukiah. For more information, visit www.RedwoodEmpireFair.com or by phone (707) 462-3884.