The Big Fresno Fair opens new museum
by Jeffery Williams
The familiar scent of food, the carnival games of skill and chance, the dramatic finish of horses barreling down the track -- all capture the annual pleasure of the slice of Americana known as The Big Fresno Fair.
This year’s event, which runs from Oct. 1-13, will boast an impressive new feature: a museum that spotlights the fair’s high points since its genesis 130 years ago.
John Alkire has been at the helm of envisioning and drawing the best and most diverse entertainment to the Central Valley since becoming the fair’s chief executive officer 11 years ago. A personable and warm man with a firm handshake and a hospitable spirit, Alkire has overseen several projects that have greatly improved the fair experience and is enthusiastic about future initiatives.
But the museum has been a focus of particular significance to him.
“The museum will serve to preserve and protect the legacy of the fair for future generations,” he said. “It is the best thing I’ve been able to do for the fair and the community.”
Alkire got the idea for a museum a couple years ago when the fair hosted a recognition event for past directors of the fair. He found himself riveted by the stories he heard.
Especially compelling was an account of how, each year, a mule team was used to harvest the middle of the racetrack to help defray costs of the fair. The gathering of historical facts and artifacts began. Among the interesting tidbits he uncovered:
• In 1889, Wyatt Earp raced his horse at the fairgrounds.
• In 1912, two records were set at the fair: the first express flight and the longest glide.
• In 1920, a wooden racetrack at the fair was described as “the fastest speedway in the world.”
• In the 1930s, one fair attraction was airplane vs. auto races.
• In 1995, the fair became the first to have mule races.
The museum will feature more than 1,000 displays, including the iconic photography of Pop Laval, the original drawings of former Fresno Bee artist Perry Huffman, the mural art of Mike Kohler, and many vintage banners, posters and artifacts. Most items were donated by the Fresno Historical Society and members of the community.
Alkire also invited individuals who have worked and volunteered at the fair for the past several decades to share their memories. An audio/visual history of their recollections will be presented in the museum on a video loop during this year’s fair.
In 2015, the fair will break ground on a new addition to the museum that will showcase furniture from the former Fresno County Courthouse, which was built in 1875 and razed in the 1960s. It will be crowned with a true Fresno jewel: the courthouse cupola. The furniture and cupola have been preserved and stored for past several years by the Caglia family.
“It’s exciting that the Fresno Fair has been given this important part of Fresno history to restore and proudly display,” Alkire said of the addition, which is scheduled for completion in 2016.
Another project slated to begin after this year’s fair is the construction of a multi-purpose facility near the Paul Paul Theater.
Alkire’s tireless efforts on behalf of the fair garner high praise.
“John is a true visionary with the ability to execute,” said Brian Tatarian, president of Friends of the Big Fresno Fair, a charitable foundation. “He generates tremendous loyalty by working so hard himself, then giving the credit to everyone else.”
Fritz Lauritzen, Tatarian’s fellow board member, echoed Tatarian’s sentiments.
“John has been the best fair manager that I believe we have ever had and has made numerous and significant improvements,” Lauritzen said. Tatarian noted that the Big Fresno Fair has earned numerous awards and accolades during Alkire’s tenure.
It might be said that the roots of Alkire’s success in this venue were planted long ago. He grew up around fairs, following his father’s footsteps.
“He spent 19 years running fairs, so I learned a little along the way,” Alkire said.
Alkire earned his degree in animal science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His love for livestock and animal husbandry remains a powerful force. He owns a ranch in Visalia. Asked how many horses he has, Alkire said with a wry grin, “too many.” In their free time, Alkire and his wife, Sheryl, enjoy company of their family, which includes seven grandchildren.
While he admits he has a special place in his heart for horseracing and livestock judging, Alkire is openly proud of the fair’s exhibits and attractions for children, many of whom are unable to visit the state’s popular but costly amusement parks.
“A sad reality is that the Valley has a high unemployment rate,” he said. “One in four people are in poverty, so the fair is the only Disneyland to a lot of kids.”
Kids’ Town is a free and fun feature of the fair that includes a pirate ship, laser shooting gallery, reptile house and wildlife tree. At Catfish Falls and Miners’ Town, children can walk across bridges, explore rustic rooms, practice their fishing and pan for gold.
Alkire said the fair also hosts six education days during which more than 30,000 children visit the grounds to learn about the Valley’s livestock, crops and agricultural workers.
In addition to the new museum and other attractions, visitors to this year’s fair will be treated to an entertainment lineup that Alkire described as the most diverse in the nation: iconic crooner Tony Bennett, country stars Dierks Bentley and Justin Moore, rap artist Snoop Dogg, rock band Sublime with Rome, classic artists REO Speedwagon and the Beach Boys, and the comedy of Gabriel Iglesias and Jim Gaffigan.
Last year’s attendance topped 640,000 -- an 11 percent increase -- but Alkire is hoping for even more this year.
“The Big Fresno Fair is a little bigger and better each year,” he said. “I’ve always believed one should leave something better than the way they found it.”
For more information about The Big Fresno Fair, including hours of operation and ticket pricing, go to fresnofair.com or call (559) 650-3247. You can also visit the fair’s Facebook page at facebook.com/TheBigFresnoFair. Tours of the new museum will be available by appointment only during the run of the fair and throughout the year. Docents will be on hand for all tours.
Jeffery Williams has been a high school English teacher for 27 years. He is also a freelance writer and the award-winning author of the novel “Pirate Spirit” (iUniverse Star).