Cloverdale fair offers big rides, livestock shows while staying true to its citrus roots
The days when Cloverdale touted itself as “The Orange Belt of Sonoma County” are long gone, but the annual Citrus Fair keeps the memory alive, even if the oranges used in its exhibits are now grown in the San Joaquin Valley.
When Rotary clubs this month unveil a likeness of the Statue of Liberty and a depiction of a lunar landing, and the Lions Club puts together its steam locomotive, the thousands of oranges wired together in the creative displays will be coming from the Visalia and Reedley area.
No matter. Now in its 127th year, the Cloverdale Citrus Fair, running Feb. 15-18, is still going strong, one of the oldest fairs in California and the first to open every year among the state's 72 fairs.
It's a folksy event, a harbinger of spring that seems to attract just about all of Cloverdale's 8,800 inhabitants, who live in what passes for the last remaining small town in Sonoma County.
Besides the citrus displays, people come for the baby derby, talent contest, and queen pageant. There are pygmy goats, rabbits, poultry and dog shows. And like most fairs, there are carnival rides and live music, along with juggling acts and magicians.
As the fair evolved, it branched out from its citrus roots. Livestock competition and other activities by 4-H clubs took hold. But there is still evidence of a time when Cloverdale called itself “Orange City.”
“When you drive around Cloverdale in the front yards, everyone has citrus trees,” said Renee Rush, whose daughters, Addison Zidek, 10, and Katie Zidek, 8, are in the Harvest 4-H Club and show rabbits at the Citrus Fair.
There's also the ability in Cloverdale, especially on the outskirts, she said, “to raise a few lambs, goats, chickens or pigs in the backyard.”
Besides showing their rabbits, the girls will be making lemon bars and lemon cupcakes for the baking competition. And their 4-H club is putting together a citrus “sculpture” of Rosie the Riveter.
Longtime residents like Vernon Lile, 87, who has missed few Citrus Fairs since he first started attending in 1935, noted there were a lot more major citrus exhibits in the old days.
He recalls 10 or more large-scale displays at each fair, compared to three now.
“The interest isn't there like it used to be,” he said.
The fair offers thousands of dollars in prizes that keep the citrus exhibit competition alive, said Katie Fonsen Young, the chief operating officer. The fair, she said, is not only about tradition and history, but entertainment, education, family and “just bringing the community together.”
In the first years of the Citrus Fair, its reason for being was simpler, centered on the “oranges, lemons and olives in the vicinity to make a magnificent display,” according to the minutes of the first Citrus Fair Association meeting in 1893.
Back at the turn of the 19th century, orange and lemon orchards thrived in Sonoma County. The thermal belt that makes Cloverdale so warm in the summer was an ideal environment for the fruit. But successive frosts were blamed for ending the commercial enterprises.
The first oranges in Cloverdale were said to be Valencias, brought by Rachel and David Brush and their little daughter Annie, who collected them when they crossed the Isthmus of Panama in the late 1860s.
Seedlings coaxed from the pits of those oranges were credited with being the nucleus of a large citrus belt that was established in Cloverdale by the late 1880s. One of those early specimens, still producing fruit, is believed to be in the front yard of the historic Gould-Shaw House, adjacent to the Cloverdale History Center.
Even famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank came to Cloverdale to tinker with citrus. In one instance, he grafted lemon and orange on grapefruit stock and it endured until the 1980s, when a severe frost damaged it beyond repair, according to the late Cloverdale historian Jack Howell.
The Citrus Fair traces its inception to 1892 with a “Chrysanthemum Fair” at Library Hall that also displayed citrus.
The next year was the first official “Citrus” Fair. One of the founders was Col. J.B. Armstrong, whose name is synonymous with the giant redwood grove he preserved in Guerneville.
Among the exhibitors at the 1893 Citrus Fair was Cloverdale founder James Kleiser and Madame Emily Preston, the charismatic healer who founded a Utopian community north of town.
By 1895, even the Healdsburg Tribune was conceding “there is no disputing the fact that Cloverdale has outdone all the other towns in the county in the way of advertising its resources.”
This was despite the modest setting for the 1895 and 1896 fair - in John Sissingood's Livery and Geysers Stage Stables. The barn was decked out with potted plants and bamboo screens and the hayloft converted to a dance floor for a grand ball that lasted until 4 a.m.