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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

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

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.

By 1898, the Citrus Fair, now housed in a large wooden pavilion on West and First streets, was promoted as “Better and larger than ever before,” with “grand displays of Sonoma County oranges, lemons, olives and wines,” and exhibits of deciduous fruits.

Excursion trains brought fairgoers from Mendocino and Lake counties and from as far south as San Francisco. A special train from Petaluma to Cloverdale took two hours and the fare was $1 from Santa Rosa.

Uniformed bands met the trains, and visitors were escorted to the fair in carriages and automobiles.

“The World meets in Cloverdale” was one early slogan. For the 1909 Citrus Fair, promoters were waxing poetic and inviting fairgoers to “revel among the orange groves.”

“The Golden Fruit is ripe. Spring is arrayed in all her beauty,” read one florid promotion, never mind that the February date of the fair was still a month before the true start of spring. “Northern California offers a climate grand beyond compare. Come to peerless Sonoma County and visit the Orange City of the Golden West and attend the Seventeenth Annual Citrus Fair at Cloverdale.”

That same decade, a UC Berkeley professor delivered a long and lofty opening address at the Citrus Fair, observing that Cloverdale had built “a temple for that marvelous group of oriental fruits.”

In a dissertation on the history of citrus beginning with ancient Greece, India and China, he noted “these citrus fruits you are learning to cultivate illume the pages of poetry as well as the sober records of horticulture.”

The early Cloverdale exhibits — displays made of oranges and other fruits and vegetables — were elaborate and sometimes political. In 1910, in addition to a replica of the Yerba Buena ferry with a functioning smokestack, there was a life-size statue of temperance reformer and women’s suffragist Frances Willard, displayed by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Other years, exhibits included a lighthouse, a giant pipe organ, and a Roman garden complete with pillars and a floating swan. California missions, San Francisco cable cars, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were other motifs at successive fairs, as depicted in photos on file at the Cloverdale History Center and Museum.

To commemorate the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, there was a golden throne of California, complete with the great seal Eureka.

Cloverdalians were willing to go well beyond town to promote their citrus crops.

When Michael Meehan was asked to display citrus at the 1895 World’s Fair in San Francisco, rather than take choice fruits, he balled up a whole orange tree and transported it to The City, where it was part of the Sonoma County exhibit.

“It was said he did it just to show Los Angeles what a beautiful part of the country Cloverdale is and that fruit could be grown equally well in Northern California,” according to the book “Cloverdale Then and Now,” by the Cloverdale Historical Society.

But by 1920, a series of frosts decimated the citrus industry, which never recovered its status, according to historian Howell. In some instances, vineyards have taken their place.

But even into the 1950s, there were large nearby groves such as in Asti, on the Prati estate, which produced most of the oranges for Citrus Fair exhibits.

Octogenarian Lile remembers a number of long gone orange groves around town, along River Road, McCray Road and on North East Street.

Even though the groves are gone, it doesn’t seem to have hurt the popularity of the Citrus Fair, which, depending on the weather, attracts 12,000 to 15,000 people over its four-day run on Presidents Day Weekend, according to Young.

Lile said that as a kid he naturally enjoyed the fair a lot more. Nowadays, he said, he goes to see old-timers who return to Cloverdale, just for the fair.

“I get to see a lot of people I haven’t seen for a long time,” he said.

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