The History of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds

(Originally Kenilworth Park)

Our story begins in the mid-1800s. How this chapter ends is up to you.
1850’s

First Fair held on property at the intersection of Middle Two Rock Road and Bodega Avenue.

1859

April 12: Fair Reorganized under the auspices of the Sonoma Agricultural and Mechanics Society, with W.P Ewing as Chairman.

1860

Uriah Edward furnished property on Fair Street in Petaluma (where Petaluma High School now stands), and the first Fair on this site was held (organized by the Sonoma Agricultural & Mechanics Society).

1867

Society was reorganized as The Sonoma and Marin District Agricultural Society with J.R. Rose as President and Phillip Cowen as Secretary. To purchase the fairgrounds, 250 life memberships were sold at $25 each.

1882

1.29 acres deeded to the Sonoma and Marin District Agricultural Society by William Hill. Ownership to be reverted to William Hill if property ceases to be used for racing.

1911

Citizens of Petaluma voted in a 20-year $20,000 bond issue with which to buy the fairgrounds and buildings for conversion into a municipal park.

1936

City of Petaluma leased Kenilworth Park to the Fair at a rate of $1.00 per year for 10 years.

1941

A. E. Snider Chief of the Division of Fairs and Expositions, visited the Fair and declared, “Petaluma has the finest agricultural
Fair in the state.”

1947

Letter from Dolph Young, 4th DAA Secretary to A. E Snider, Chief of the Division of Fairs and Expositions, points out that the Association desires a 25-year lease (with an option of 25 years longer) rather than a 10-year lease.

1952

Letter from Jim Peebles, Realtor, to Dolph Young, 4th DAA Secretary, regarding property between fairgrounds and freeway.

1971

Fair Manager Art F. Canavan states, “Somewhere along the line, it would be nice to think that we try to keep a green area such as the Fairgrounds – and at the same time, serve a purpose to the community.”

1992

Court Document filed with the Sonoma County Clerk affirms the 1973 “Lease of Kenilworth Park for Fair, Exhibition and Recreational Purposes.”

1997

Letter from 4DAA notice to the city that the State desires to continue its occupancy for an additional period, ending December 31 2023, still at the stated rate of $1.00 per year and with all the same terms and condtions of current lease.

Kenilworth’s tale begins in the 1850s, when the first Fair was held at the intersection of Middle Two Rock Road and Bodega Avenue.  By the end of the decade, the Fair was reorganized by the first assembly of a Board of Directors, who in a few years became the San Pablo District Agricultural Society.

Through the Civil War years the fair remained the Society’s priority, and was held throughout the county until 1867. When the Society renamed themselves “The Sonoma and Marin District Agricultural Society”, they began acquiring the land upon which the current fair is now hosted.

In early 1882, a racetrack was deeded to the Society by prominent citizen and horse racing enthusiast William Hill. Horse racing flourished at the Fairgrounds through the first decade of the 20th century.

By 1911, racing popularity had waned, and a bond issue was presented to the voters of Petaluma to deed the fairgrounds and buildings to the City of Petaluma, which passed and cleared the path for the fair we enjoy today.

By the 1930s, multiple Sonoma County communities were interested in establishing a permanent Fair and fairgrounds.  Simultaneously, the Fourth District Agricultural Association as it exists today was founded, comprising Sonoma and Marin Counties. This newly formed association’s first decision was to choose Kenilworth Park in Petaluma as the site for the new permanent Fair.

In 1936 the City of Petaluma leased Kenilworth Park to the Fourth District Agricultural Association for a nominal fee of $1.00 per year for a period of ten years and gave them “absolute control” over the use of the property. This lease was to be renewed and amended under the same general terms in 1947 (when a 25-year option was added and exercised), 1972, and 1998.

During WWII, no fairs were held, as the space was leased to the War Department for military purposes. Following the war in 1945, a motion was raised by the Fourth District Agricultural Association (4DAA) and the State of California to possibly transfer and deed the property to the State of California and the 4DAA.

This could not be brought to fruition, however, due to an issue with the title of the property, and the fact that before the City could execute a deed it would need to obtain consent by means of a public election.

By 1947, a quiet title action had ensued and was eventually resolved, and interest was renewed in deeding Kenilworth Park to the State and 4DAA.

In 1949 it was firmly established by the City Attorney that this could be “done only by ballot” in a special election, but by the end of the decade the possible deeding of Kenilworth had been removed from the spotlight of local politics.

This issue of possibly deeding all or part of the Fairgrounds and Kenilworth Park resurfaced again in 1978 and 1990, and in both instances the current City Attorney echoed the original opinion of the 1949 conclusion to present the matter to the Petaluma electorate.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Fairgrounds and Kenilworth Park continued to host the Sonoma-Marin Fair and a multitude of other events, and made many improvements and additions to the property.

By the 1970s, the Fairgrounds and Kenilworth Park had become a mainstay of the Petaluma landscape, holding one of the largest fairs in California every year and continually adding regionally specific events, such as Farmer’s Day, incorporated in 1973.

The Fairgrounds and its reputation continued to grow through the 1980s and 1990s, always emphasizing its commitment to agriculture and community. The entertainment sector also expanded, attracting several big-name performers, such as Huey Lewis in 1984 and George Straight in 1987.

The Fairgrounds was also used as a disaster relief center following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and achieved national recognition with the first Ugliest Dog Contest, established in 1993. In 1998, the 1972 lease is renewed once more, securing the 4DAAs operation and control of the Fair and grounds through the end of 2023.

Today the Fairgrounds and Kenilworth Park continues to host the Sonoma-Marin Fair and attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. Events and adventures abound through the rest of the year, highlighting the county’s commitment to agriculture, wildlife, food, community, and preservation of its rich history.

The danger we face is the possibility of the City of Petaluma reducing the fair and the space to a fraction of what it is at the close of 2023, in which case the Fairgrounds and Kenilworth Park as we know and love them today would cease to exist.

© Copyright 2021 & beyond - Friends of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds