A Tribal Gathering at the Ventura County Fair

By Tim Pompey

After all the heat and humidity that Ventura County has suffered during July and August, today is unusually cool and overcast. A welcome relief.

To the fair goers clamoring up the stairs of my bus, the weather doesn’t seem to matter. The mood is upbeat. People are friendly. Kids are excited. Call it a truism. Going to the fair is a special event. No grumpy people allowed.

I’m quite mellow today, wondering as I ride if I can dig up something new to write about. After all, the Ventura County Fair is predictable in what it has to offer. I know where the turkey leg booth will be, the inside corner of the Adventures in Shopping building where Mackinac Fudge and other tasty treats will flow out the door, the Ferris Wheel, the bungee jump, plus dozens of other familiar offerings.

I suppose that’s one reason why we keep coming back. It’s once a year. We know exactly what amusements we want. The Ventura County Fair is like a tribal gathering. We put up with noise and crowds and more than a few barkers and hustlers because that is what we expect from the fair. Food, rides, entertainment, livestock, and shopping.

My quest strikes gold almost immediately when I hit the Home Arts building. It’s as if my Spidey senses picked up on a hidden crevice of art. A trifecta. Things created by people, either for fun or for a living. Artists who have stumbled into their art and decided to stay. Some do it as a business. Most do it for fun and for the joy of creating something beautiful.

For instance, Barbara Makatura from Thousand Oaks, who is sitting next to the exhibit for porcelain art. When I meet her, she is painting a tea cup.

Porcelain artist Barbara Makatura from Thousand Oaks

“I’ve been painting probably five years now,” said Barbara.

It was an art that she picked up from her mother. “My mother was a porcelain painter in the ‘70s,” she explained.

Now, forty years down the road, Barbara has come to appreciate her mother’s work: “I’ve sort of had that full circle experience. I was always fascinated by it because she did such beautiful work. Now I realize how good she was.”

As for her own paintings, she has rekindled something of her mother’s passion. “I’m not always so happy with what I paint, but other people think it looks nice, so that is what’s spurred me on.”

In the same building, I discover something else unusual. Egg decorating. This has nothing to do with Easter. It’s all about the art, the egg, and a beautiful design in the round.

I had always assumed that decorating an egg was more of an Eastern European and Asian art kind of thing. Ukrainian or Russian—Pysanky or Faberge—or delicate Chinese hand painted egg.

Imagine my surprise to discover that there is a local egg artist club—California Tri-County Egg Artists—located at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Oxnard.

The first question to come to mind: Why egg decorating?

Nancy Wagoner, president of the California Tri-County Egg Artists, gave me a very good answer.

Soledad Oseguera from Santa Paula and Nancy Wagoner from Oxnard display their decorated eggs

“I’ve been coming to the fair every year now for 26 years,” she explained. “And when my kids were very small, I would always come here first because I just loved the eggs. And I always said when my kids are older, I’m going to do this. So, now that they’re older, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

These are not just your standard chicken eggs. They are ordered and come packaged as empty shells. The variety of eggs include ostrich, duck, emu, and quail eggs. No hummingbird eggs. “Those are illegal,” Nancy added.

As I browse their cabinets, I realize that while you can make art with any object, the symmetry and the art of egg decorating are especially beautiful, which may explain why people like Nancy promise when they see the eggs on display to go home and start learning.

“We get a lot of people from the fair on our sign-up sheet,” she said.

Only a few feet away, the Channel Islands Woodcarvers are busy as usual, but I am drawn to Robert Little from Port Hueneme. His specialty is carving ships and putting them in a bottle.

Robert Little posing next to his ship-in-a bottle miniature carving

I think this must be something picked up from my baby boomer years. The idea that you could insert a very intricate work of art through a bottle neck is one of those Rubik Cube puzzles that I could never solve.

Robert is associated with The Channel Islands Maritime Museum, which has one of the largest collections of carved sailing ships in Southern California. Some of those ships are built by carvers such as Little.

The museum features models of sailing ships that go back to the time of the Vikings and even further to the Egyptians. Most of the museum’s collection, however, dates to the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Robert shows me one of his works: a miniature ship in full sail inside of what appears to be a former liquor bottle, now put to a much better use.

How did he become interested in carving ships in a bottle? Like all good husbands, he blames his wife.

“I lived in the San Fernando Valley thirty some years ago,” he recalled. “Then my wife and I moved up here. I used to build very large models, but I filled the house up. So, when we moved up here, my wife said I can continue building ship models but they have to be small.”

His wife certainly got her wish. Robert plays around with ships not only in liquor bottles. He does some in clear light bulbs. Go figure.

The key to putting a ship in a bottle? “You build the ship outside the bottle, then you put it inside,” said Robert. Sounds simple enough. And the trick to this?

“I can give you all the secrets in about two minutes,” he promised.

While it takes a little more time than that, his explanation makes sense. The masts on the ship are collapsible. When you’ve finished the ship, you collapse the sails, glue the ship in the bottle, then pull the wire and raise the masts with the wire. Cut the wire. Voilà.

Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it makes sort of practical sense.

Leaving the Home Arts building, I head for the Gem and Minerals building in search of further amusement.

What I discover is that the Gem and Arts building is really the “clean out your closet and bring in all the things your spouse has been begging you to get rid of for decades” building. Stamps, fossils, toy trains, anything that you can fit in a cabinet or on a table.

The spouse gets relief for a couple of weeks. Deep down however, this is what every spouse knows. All that stuff is coming back.

As for gems and minerals, the only display I find is Spheres, Stone Boxes, Etc. run by Bob and Leilani Backus from Palmdale.

Here’s a case of a man who retired, only to start a second career. His specialty is to take rough gems, petrified wood, and other hard objects and polish them into shiny spheres of color and shape.

I make the mistake of calling them balls out loud and somebody immediately adds a blue comment. Even though it’s a common term, when a man polishes shiny rock balls, someone always has something to say. Still, Bob doesn’t mind. Neither do I. It’s what he does. Call it what it is.

Bob Backus displays some of his polished gems

Bob admits that he doesn’t do the hard part. He’s got machinery that does all the scrubbing and polishing. But the result is exquisite. He works with onyx, agate, quartz, dinosaur bone, and petrified wood, among other things.

“I do glasswork, hot glasswork, stained glass and stuff,” he said. “I always wanted to make glass balls and I could never get the glass ball quite right.”

So, after working with some mother of pearl inlay, he joined a rock club and eventually designed a rock polishing machine. The rest is shiny ball history.

Of course, one of the biggest attractions at the fair are an assortment of animal farms. Tucked a bit off Main Street is Uncle Leo’s Farm.

For those who are most familiar with the farm side of the fair, Uncle Leo’s has become a family mainstay. Kids love the barnyard animals. Cows, chickens, pigs, pygmy goats. Walk inside the farm and it’s as if the level of energy jumps. Something about kids and animals is an instant charge of electricity.

When you walk in Uncle Leo’s, you get a real lesson in the basic nature of animal life. These are barnyard animals, but still, a mother pig nursing her piglets creates quite a buzz This is not cable or Internet.  This is in your face breastfeeding as happens normally on the farm. No big deal. Well, maybe a little. A crowd of gawkers has certainly gathered.

Since dear Uncle Leo has passed, the coordination of the farm has been handed down to his granddaughter-in-law, Gwyndolin Vanoni from Camarillo.

Gwyndolin insists watching actual farm animals be farm animals is exactly what Uncle Leo would have wanted. “Uncle Leo started this farm 61 years ago,” she stated. “Its purpose was to bring farm life to people who might not otherwise be able to visit a farm.”

Uncle Leo wanted to connect kids with the source of their food. After all, pigs and cows don’t breed in a grocery store. “He was a 4H leader and he would come with his own kids with their 4H animals,” she said. “He would find people who had never seen a lamb before, who had never seen a pig before, and so he felt like it was important to give them an opportunity to see this separate from the livestock exhibits and with more information about general farm life.”

Uncle Leo’s Farm offers a real life view of farm life. Here, a mother nurses her piglets (11). Gwyndolin Vanoni, Uncle Leo’s granddaughter-in-law (12) now runs the farm.

As the leader of Uncle Leo’s, does Gwyndolin plan to be here for the next 61 years?

“Probably,” she laughs. “I have my own two kids that are six and eight now and we have them helping with activities, so they’re getting brought up in farm life as well.”

The crowds gather several times a day for the Alaskan racing pigs

I ask why kids are so fascinated with animals, especially young babies. “I think the animals are innocent like the kids are and they’re sort of drawn to each other,” she reasoned. “When there’s a crowd of kids around the piglets, the kids start hopping around and the piglets get excited from the energy.”

We take a photo of her together with a baby calf. The calf immediately poops. It’s all part of the farm. Uncle Leo would have been proud.

Families and friends see the fair as a time to spend with their children and with each other.

Today especially, Charly Hancock with her children Dean and Lilly have come down with Alyssa Gaston’s family. “It’s wristband day,” she reminds me.

(l. to r.) Dean (10), Charly (mother), and Lily (9) Hancock come to the fair with their friends, Alyssa Gaston and daughter.

That’s right. Thirty dollars buys a whole day of rides and a whole car of headaches and upset stomachs. But for the price and the kid’s excitement, it’s worth it.

Still, the rides are only part of the fun. At the fair, you can eat anything sweet or spicy or just plain yummy and high in calories. This place a diet busting paradise. What is Charly’s favorite thing to do, besides going on the rides with the kids? “Mini donuts,” she confesses.

Nine-year-old Lily loves both the fair and her family. They seem to fit together on a day like today. “It’s really fun here,” she said. “It’s kind of like a break and we get to ride some rides and have fun.”

But the biggest attraction for her? Something much more basic. “Spending a day with my family and riding the Ferris Wheel,” she said.

For ten-year-old Dean, it’s all about food and family. “I like the cotton candy, all the food, and how we all get together and have fun once a year,” he said. Of course, he remains firm on his favorite attraction. Simply put: “The cotton candy.”

As my time winds down, it seems that the offbeat and peculiar seem to bring the day to a conclusion. I watch the Alaskan pig races. I’m not sure what makes an Alaskan pig different from a California pig, but the crowd is overflowing and the pigs are running around a racetrack, primarily I think for the corn reward at the end. Still, strange as it seems, watching pigs race is entertaining. It’s that kid and animal thing again.

As I head for my usual final ride on the Ferris Wheel, my route includes the loud and raucous beat of the Street Drum Corps, a run-in with stilt walkers, and a picture that someone graciously takes of me sitting on the palm of a very large very black gorilla statue. I haven’t seen him before, but I have a feeling that he and I are going to be friends.

While feeling the breeze and enjoying the view from the Ferris Wheel, I notice a teenager in my car who can’t take his eyes off his iPhone. The sky has cleared and the breeze blowing off the Pacific is cool. I don’t say anything. I know at some point, as he grows older, he’ll look back and remember the fair fondly. Probably not the Ferris Wheel, but this place offers something for everyone.

What he remembers, what I remember, will be completely different, but we keep returning. Like the electronic images we consume, the fair plants it’s noisy, yummy, weird, smelly, and suckling pig image in our brains. And like those same nursing piglets, we just can’t get enough. It’s like somehow, we know instinctively, when the fair opens, it’s time to feed.

Tim Pompey finds the 800 lb. gorilla in the room as he takes a break outside. Mr. Gorilla offers a friendly palm to sit in. Tim takes him up on his offer.

Photo Credits: Tim Pompey


Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can learn about his books on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/booksbytimpompey.

Mr. Pompey’s Newest Book:  

deep.downDeep Down  is another roller coaster collection of short stories by author Tim Pompey. A mortician with ghost problems. A humanoid stranded in outer space. A B-17 bomber pilot haunted by voices from his past. These and other stories dig beneath reality and crawl through hidden tunnels to a world that exists without and within us. From childhood to old age, these stories are locked inside the mind, waiting to be discovered.

Go deep. Very deep. Find out what lies buried within your own imagination.

Deep Down On Amazon

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Citizen Reporter
3 years ago

We were there yesterday and saw almost everything Tim did except the pig races. Tim has managed to keep the spark alive and not succumb to VC Fair Fatigue, even though he has seen and reported it many times.

I noticed that prices have gotten out of control; The turkey legs, which are good, are now $13. A glass of beer is nearly $10. A very small bag of kettle corn ranges from $5-6– and I mean small.

Favorite foods yesterday were Lupitas (always best value), the Greek Gyro place and something called Magonadas- a mango sherbert with sliced mangoes and some really interesting spices.

Some of the vendors are offering good deals on merchandise, but you have to sort through a lot of useless junk.

It was amusing to engage the political party booth people and attendees in levely debate.

We saw the legendary Spinners act. I had forgotten how many great hits they had. They still have some of the original members, along with some up and coming young guys and haven’t lost their spark, unlike some has-been acts that just won’t quit even when they are way past their expiration dates.

The photography and art exhibits are an annual highlight. We spend more time there than anywhere.

The livestock exhibits are impressive, but always look the same to us, because we don’t really know what we’re looking for. So we only check it out once ina while.

I think the kids enjoy these things way more than their jaded elders, Tim excepted!