Living History

What’s Inside the Museums at

the Fresno Fairgrounds

There’s a reason they call it The Big Fresno Fair—Fresno County is one of the richest in California; it’s bursting at the seams with history, culture, and agriculture. Fair officials had the foresight to create a place where people can come and view all that Fresno County has to offer. And it’s free! Unless you go during Fair time, in which case you must pay Fair admission.

To clarify, there are two separate museums in the fairgrounds: the Big Fresno Fair Museum and the Fresno County Historical Museum. While they are located just steps from each other, their objectives are slightly different. The Big Fresno Fair Museum covers everything there is to know about the Central Valley’s biggest fair from its beginnings in 1884, as well as highpoints of historical Valley life. The Fresno County Historical Museum gives a grand overview of Fresno County and its influencers in modern context. Every inch of both museums, inside and out, is thoughtfully utilized.

The Big Fresno Fair Museum was the first of the two to open in 2013, and is housed in O’Neill Hall. Showcasing more than 2,600 items that highlight the Fair and the Central Valley’s evolution over some 135 years, it’s easy to feel sensory overload. Starting with a variety of farm equipment and Sun-Maid memorabilia displayed along the entrance ramp, patrons are immediately submerged in Valley history as soon as they walk through the door. 

There are a lot of firsts in there: first ever cotton candy and popcorn machines, first ticket booth erected for the Fair, first blue ribbon given out at the first Fair—the list goes on. 

Highlights include: an exhibit on Wyatt Earp’s racehorses, a miniature replica of the Fair’s original wooden racetrack, a model of the original grandstands, a life-size cow with info on the battle between Tulare and Fresno counties’ dairy expansion, 42 original “Pop” Laval photographs, hand-blown glass spirit signs behind the building’s retired bar, a set of California Chrome’s winning race shoes, original Fair banners, the history of Harris Ranch, antique fruit box labels and carousal horses, excerpts on racing of all kinds—that list goes on, too.

It’ll take about an hour to really go through the museum. Teachers can even create assignments based on the material inside, as students can scan QR codes to ascertain additional information online. It’s a great way to get the tech-savvy, younger generation interested and involved in their local history.

The Fresno County Historical Museum opened just a couple years later in 2015. It’s housed in the two-story building just to your right when you go in the Chance Entrance Gate. When walking into the Big Fresno Fair Museum, the level of professional curatorship is immediately striking. 

What’s in there? A restored 1913 Fresno Fire Department fire truck, alongside an 1887 hand pump, is the centerpiece of the first floor. Guests will be awestruck by a slice of the world’s largest fallen sugar pine, with timeline plates nailed to rings indicating historical highpoints; the seedling took root before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. There’s a piece of the Shaver Flume, which transported the lumber that built the Valley. A standing exhibit dedicated to Fresno’s Japanese-Americans covers everything from World War II internment to Japantown. A gallery wall chronicles the life of writer William Saroyan. A closet has been converted into “Krehbiel’s Mercantile,” which you can walk into like you would an actual storefront. One wall is papered with nothing but pictures capturing past sitting presidents on their visits to Fresno. The Valley’s extensive obsession with racing (auto, motorcycle, horse, airplane) is depicted next to the Italian Entertainment Park’s original sign. The Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame is there, too. And that’s just a teaser of what’s included.

Docents are available to walk you through both museums. During Fair time, guided tours are available at 11:30 A.M., then again at 2 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Make note that the buildings open when the Fair does and close at 9 P.M. daily, but the second floor of the Fresno County Historical Museum closes earlier at 5:30 P.M. Anyone wishing to view the museums any other day of the year must make an appointment by calling 559.650.FAIR with the number of party members and desired date. Don’t hesitate to call—they are more than eager to set up a convenient time for anyone to check out the museums! 

But if you are lucky enough to be accompanied by John C. Alkire, CEO of The Big Fresno Fair, you’ll be astounded to find that there isn’t a question he can’t answer…in depth. These museums are clearly one of his most prized possessions. And he is constantly finding ways to add to them in an effort to improve excellence.

The Community Cultural Center (a 1,000 square-foot room on the first floor) will constantly rotate features on the diverse ethnic background of the Central Valley. This year, a new exhibit on the Sikh community is going in. An interactive touchscreen shares the stories of 76 Valley icons with photos, videos, and an audio narrative in three different languages next to a 27’ long and 9’ high mural painted by local artist Dale Oftedal, which depicts Fresno County’s wealth of ethnic and agricultural heritage.

A new Armenian exhibit is coming to the second story. And Monster City Studios will be building a new projection map of Fresno’s history, so guests can see the city’s evolution. 

Outside, there will be a refurbished racecar, from the Kearney Bowl, being added to the exterior display. In 2019, it will be hoisted into the air to join the collection of neon signs surrounding the Paul Paul Theater.

P.S. If you’re looking for a venue to host an event or celebration, those neon signs and the old Fresno Courthouse Cupola (visible from the expansive second story windows of the Fresno County Historical Museum) would make for an unforgettable view. Plus, there’s a historic watering hole on-site, since The Cosmopolitan’s original bar now resides upstairs.

The Big Fresno Fair returns for its 135th year on October 3rd, and will run through the 14th. Attendance exceeds 600,000 people every year, yet seemingly few realize that these museums are right there. When you visit The Big Fresno Fair this autumn, make a point of stopping by to check out the Big Fresno Fair Museum and the Fresno County Historical Museum, especially if you’re a Central Valley native—plan on making an appointment to bring your kids, grandkids, grandparents, and local friends back for the same hometown roots experience. If you choose to go during Fair time, the cost of admission is well worth the price you’re already going to pay to obtain that annual guilty pleasure: fair food.