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.
Cloverdale Citrus Fair
When: Feb. 15-18
Where: Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds, 1 Citrus Fair Drive
General admission: $8; $5 for seniors and kids ages 6 to 12; free for kids 5 and under
More information: www.cloverdalecitrusfair.org