MODESTO -- Historians revel in learning new stuff about old stuff. That's what makes them historians.
Last year, Scott Atherton of the Turlock Historical Society spent a great deal of time compiling the history of the Turlock Melon Carnival, which made its debut in 1911 and eventually morphed into the Stanislaus County Fair. The 2011 fair, in essence, represented the fair's centennial in Turlock.
With the fair opening Friday, Atherton decided to research the county's entire fair history for an article in The Pioneer, the society's periodical. To educate others, though, he first had to educate himself.
He learned that in 1869 and 1870, Tuolumne City a key shipping point on the Tuolumne River was home to Stanislaus County's first two fairs. Then the railroad created Modesto in 1870, and by 1875 the town began holding fairs featuring stock exhibits but driven mostly by the gambling involved in horse racing.
Because the fairs fell under control of the state, which created agricultural districts, the political warfare of the era might seem strange by today's standards. Democratic governors now deemed proponents of big government were the ones who cut funds for the fairs.
Republican governors whom you might expect to withhold taxpayer dollars for public events were the ones who actually funded the fairs.
Gov. George Pardee, a Democrat, vetoed fair funding after taking office in 1903, and the fairs in this county lacked 38th Agricultural District sponsorship for the next three decades, Atherton found.
The irony? Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown reduced funding for the county fairs this year as well.
"Things haven't changed all that much," Atherton said. "If you have to depend on Sacramento for funding, don't."
And Atherton ultimately gleaned as much about Modesto's fair history as he did his own. Modesto found itself engaged in various fair-related "tug-o-wars," as Atherton calls them, and lost on all fronts:
Modesto battled with Turlock for many years over which city would become permanent host of the Stanislaus County Fair.
Less than two weeks after the second Turlock Melon Carnival concluded in 1912, Modesto staged the first Stanislaus County Fair and Livestock Exposition. The scenario repeated in 1916, and Turlock leaders made it clear they wanted to hold it the next year. Modesto lobbied officials from Oakdale, Newman and others to keep the fair permanently in Modesto, which was the county seat, and the same argument arose in 1918 with Modesto the host again.
World War I put the fairs on hold. But in 1920, Modesto bought 55 acres along the Tuolumne River for $55,000. The land was supposed to become home to new fairgrounds, an expanded Bud Coffee Field airport and a baseball stadium-athletic field. Some folks tried to commandeer the land to become the Modesto Junior College campus, a coup that failed.
The city had fairs in 1925-27, but politicians refused to fund the 1928 fair until after the election. The fair was canceled, and Modesto never held another one. Ultimately, Turlock kept staging its Melon Carnivals. It waited out Modesto and won out, becoming the permanent site in 1934.
Modesto's ballpark eventually became John Thurman Field. The city relocated the airport, turning Coffee Field into the Muni Golf Course, with the caveat that the property could someday be used as a fairground. That will never happen.
Modesto jockeyed with Stockton over horse racing, and in 1890 opened a racetrack on Woodland Avenue. The bank foreclosed on the Modesto track in 1895, and subsequent owners returned it to farmland. Today, Stockton holds racing on the state's county fair circuit.
And Stanislaus County, along with several others, wanted to keep the California State Fair mobile, rotating it to various counties instead of having a permanent site. After the inaugural state fair in San Francisco in 1854, it went to Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton and Marysville. Stanislaus County didn't get to hold one. Sacramento landed it forever in 1859.
"(State) fairs were so important," Atherton said. "In some cases, it was the only way to get the governor and some of the noteworthy people here. It's difficult to do that now."
Today, the best way to get high-ranking politicians to visit usually involves a $500-a-plate fund-raising dinner more if you want a photo.
Yesterday versus today. New stuff about the olden days.
In his drive to educate others about the history of fairs in Stanislaus County, Atherton himself got an education.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.