You might think the season for the Los Angeles County fairgrounds begins and ends in September, with the run of the actual fair. But there's more to the so-called "Fairplex" than meets the eye.
Sure, the fairgrounds have been home to the LA County Fair since 1922, but they also host a number of other large-scale, special events throughout the year.
There are also a number of year-round historical sites, museums, attractions, and even a gallery that you can visit even when the fair isn’t in session — not the least of which is the former site of the Pomona Assembly Center, a detention camp for Japanese-Californians during the first few months of World War II in 1942.
So, here are the five best ways to experience the L.A. county fairgrounds, whether the fair is running or not.
1. Los Angeles County Fair
The grounds for that first fair in 1922 were built on top of a beet and barley field smack-dab in the Pomona Valley's middle of nowhere, surrounded by orchards with the San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance. But despite its remote location, the LA County Fair was big business, right from the start. Just three years in, attendance had already jumped into the six figures -- not bad for a five-day event in September, the hottest month of the year.
These days, the Fair — which ranks as the country’s fourth-largest — runs for nearly three weeks every September and features grandstand concerts by today’s top musical artists as well as motorsports exhibitions like demolition derby. Highlights of the carnival attraction, which has been running in its present location since 1950, include La Grande Wheel, two skyrides, and many local food vendors and carnival games. It’s open every September for 19 days, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Even better, it’s accessible via Metrolink trains.
2. The Farm at Fairplex
No matter how many carnival attractions or grandstand performances have been added over the years, the LA County Fair has always paid tribute to and welcomed young farmers. And while the farm area of the fairgrounds has expanded dramatically beyond the "Storybook Farm" that opened in 1962 (now known as California's Heritage Square) and the FairView Farms livestock area at the beginning of this millennium, so too have the fairgrounds themselves — from 43 acres in 1922 to 543 acres today. And while most county fairs will have you bring your farm to it — for any number of agricultural displays and demonstrations of horticulture and animal husbandry — Fairplex has its own farm, which is open all year, not just during the county fair. The Farm at Fairplex dates back to the 1940s and 50s, when it was more of a "farm attraction" of the fair — with various living history demonstrations to teach kids and families what life on a farm had historically been like. And much of that "old farm" flavor is still there, though the new-and-improved farm facility is far more focused on sustainable living, actually raising animals, growing crops, and teaching kids where food comes from (other than a drive-thru) and how to eat healthy.
Thanks to a grant awarded in 2012, what began as a half-acre farm has expanded with an additional three acres — though, given the surrounding development, the Farm at Fairplex is more of an "urban farm" than a recreation of a rural environment. Each year, the Farm at Fairplex grows an average of 150 specialty crops, all of which are organic — whether they're fruits and tree nuts, herbs and spices (like Ocimum basilicum, a form of sweet basil that smells like cinnamon), or vegetables like squashes and nightshades like the Turkish or Ethiopian eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum), the "Fairy Tale" eggplant (Solanum melongena), or any other varieties of aubergines or teeny tiny tomatoes.
3. Fairplex Garden Railroad
A staple of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds since 1924, the Fairplex Garden Railroad isn’t your average model train setup. In fact, it’s all out in the open — and the size of a football field! And it's been in its current location (by Gate 1) since 1935 and has run continuously there, with the exception of the World War II years (1942 to 1947, when part of the county fairgrounds were being used as part of the Japanese internment/war relocation effort).
When the fair isn’t open, public run days are the second Sunday of the month. But when the fair is open — which is the only time you get to see the G-gauge railroad at night – you’ll find it tucked behind the beer garden. Pay close attention to the details, and you’ll be easily transported to the sites of a traveling circus, an Old West town, and anywhere else that a real-life railroad might run through — as long as it relates specifically to California. Along 10,000 feet of track, you’ll find replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission San Luis Rey, the Harmony Borax Works and the 20 Mule Team of Death Valley circa 1885, and the long-gone Echo Mountain House, the White City hotel at the top of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway above Altadena.
4. RailGiants Train Museum
Formerly home of the “Big Boy Steam Dream” (currently undergoing restoration off-site), RailGiants – the train museum operated by the Southern California Chapter of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society — is a hidden gem of the Pomona Valley, tucked away at Gate 1 of Fairplex. Not only does it house the original Santa Fe train station from the town of Arcadia (circa 1887, relocated to Fairplex in 1969), but it also has a number of historic locomotives on display — including the turn-of-the-century United States Potash Company Number 3 (a short-line, narrow-gauge locomotive from Arizona), the Fruit Growers Supply Company No. 3 from the logging railroad circa 1909, and the high-speed passenger service car from the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe line (circa 1927, acquired 1955).
Some of the trains even have a direct connection to the LA County Fair, like the 1930 Santa Fe Horse Express Car, which transported horses to and from the Fair’s racetrack — in the era of Seabiscuit, when horseracing was all the rage. But perhaps the most interesting is the oldest train in the museum’s collection, the Outer Harbor Terminal Railway Company No. 2, built in 1887 to serve the docks in San Pedro, operated by a subsidiary of Union Oil until its retirement and donation to the museum in 1955. Volunteers are on hand during open house hours (the second weekend of every month) to answer questions and even unlock some of the dining cars and other luxury rail accommodations for you to take an exclusive peek. It’s also open during regular hours throughout the run of the Fair.
5. NHRA Motorsports Museum
Even if you’ve never heard of El Mirage or the Bonneville Salt Flats or the nation’s first commercial drag strip (Santa Ana Drags at Orange County Airport, which opened in 1950), you know it when you feel a special affinity for "The Bug," "The Glass Slipper," or "Midnite Oil." There’s just nothing like the roar of a V8 engine.
Drag racing, at its heart, is incredibly simple. Hot-rodding, however, started out as more of a way to strip those cars down, removing as much of the chassis as possible to reduce drag and increase speed and overall performance. If you feel like you belong behind the wheel of a Ford Highboy Roadster, and you long to careen down the open road in a streak of "Insatiable Red," the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum, located at Fairplex since 1998, is for you. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the annual fair, it observes Fair admission prices and hours of operation. You can access it from Fairplex Gate 1.
Bonus: Artist, muralist, mosaicist, and sometimes architect Millard Sheets — born in Pomona — was actually director of the Fair’s fine arts exhibit for 25 years, and you can visit his former office right now at the Millard Sheets Art Center, also at Gate 1. The (mostly gutted) interior now serves as gallery space for rotating art exhibits, like the 2017 edition of Pacific Standard Time. But it’s also interesting to see the 12,000-square-foot former “Fine Arts Building,” which was built in 1937 as part of the Works Progress Administration and whose construction was overseen by Sheets himself.
Top Image courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein