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California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta Makes a Strong Return

Helm & Sons on the Midway
Colton, CA based Helm & Sons Amusements provided the Midway for the Mid Winter California Fair. Photo by Steve Hinz.

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California has been behind most other states when reopening after the Pandemic, but the California Mid-Winter Fair made its return in 2022, bringing a lot of happy attendees in Imperial, Calif. Marking its 114th celebration, while most indoor buildings and exhibits were closed, there were plenty of rides and entertainment to keep attendees happy.

Adult admission tickets were priced at $8, kids and seniors at $6, with ride wristbands for the carnival at $40. Prior to the event, wristbands were discounted to $30. The fair ran March 4 through 13. The midway operator was Helm and Sons Amusements, headquartered in nearby Colton, Calif. Naturally, the Giant Wheel and the Century Wheel were among the most popular attractions; the Vertigo thrill ride was also a strong draw. Separately staged from the main rides, Helm and Sons offered a kiddie land area for the youngest riders.

Helm and Sons CEO, Davey Helm reported that the fair was the last one his company participated in prior to the pandemic shut down, and while the pandemic was a struggle to get through, he was proud of the fact that company did not lay off any of its staff and was back this year with rides and games. He was proud that the company did not have to lay off employees due to the pandemic, though it took a lot of work and adjustments to keep them in place.

Helm and his team used its trailers as logistics haulers. “When FEMA hit and the big hurricane hit down south, [we] were the very first ones with boots on the ground to drive, day after day, loads of resources from California out to the people in need out there.”

And now the company has seven new rides this year, and seven planned for next year,  making the company's return to the fair better than ever.

Despite gusty winds affecting the first few days of operation, crowds turned out to celebrate the first fair event since 2020, when the event managed to slip in just prior to the pandemic shutting things down in California.

From riding the Zipper and sailing down the Fun Slide to big turkey legs, and a full exhibition of livestock, the fair was back in full, with just a few exceptions. The Imperial Valley Gem and Mineral Society exhibition was only open on weekends; the Student Art Showcase and High School Arts buildings were still closed.  

Fair CEO Alan Phillips explained that “With the ever-changing pandemic, we made the difficult decision to close the majority of the indoor buildings and exhibits and have a completely outdoor fair.”

The fair made up for this at least in part, with a larger than usual midway, as well as a robust line-up of entertainment acts on the festival grounds, concerts, dirt track events, and the traditional junior livestock show and auction. “We feel very positive this is a step in the right direction and we are grateful to host an outdoor fair, and excited about what we can do,” Phillips stressed.

In 2021, the fair ran a drive through food vendor event, but this year's almost-full return was viewed as special, according to fair board director Cherisse Alford. “It feels amazing to be back, and it's just so nice to see family and friends and the kids' showing livestock.”

Not to mention partaking of favorite food items this year, such as funnel cakes, corn dogs, deep fried Oreos, and spiral fries. New food stands included a pineapple-shaped Dole Whip booth, and Mom's Bakeshoppe, which sold cookies in buckets. Returning favorites including Backyard BBQ and Texas Donuts, the latter of which came prepared for the fair's return with three new flavors: caramel macchiato donut, mazapán with lechera, and strawberry icing with sprinkles.

Regina Hernandez and Sonia Gama both work with Texas Donuts and know it is a big deal for the fair. Both agreed it was not quite the same when people came through the drive thru.

The Demolition Derby was one of the most popular events of the fair, a dirt track thriller that packed the stadium stands on March 6th. All the grandstand entertainment was organized by the CMWF Heritage Foundation this year. This was the first year the Heritage Foundation took over the grandstand, allowing every dollar made to go straight back into the facility.

Best of all, all events were free with fair admission, one way in which the fair sought to welcome attendees back. Other events included Southwest Lightning Sprint Association racing, and California Vintage Motocross, with a concluding event of the Heritage 500, a competitive racing lineup that included local racers in four-cylinder vehicles with models from 2000 or older. The winner was favorite Steve Mamer's yellow taxi vehicle; 16 racers competed in all.

But perhaps the most enjoyed event of the entire fair this year was the return of the event's annual High School Madness. This year, about 2,500 of the Imperial Valley's high school students filled the grandstands to capacity, cheering on and representing each of the area's public high schools. Alford described the celebration as “such a fun event,” one in which each of the public high schools could come together and have a fun, friendly competition and be together and just have a great time. We're all so happy to be back here.”

The Madness competitions include small teams from each high school competing in events including Human Pyramid, Tug of War, Mascot Dance Off, and a multi-mini event, Ruckus Relay which included a tricycle bike race, wheelbarrow hay roll, hopscotch, rope your advisor, and advisor flip-cup games. Marching band drum lines and cheerleading squads also participated, performing between each Madness event.

Alford, who is also advisor of the Junior Fair Board called the happy energy of the event “just contagious…it's amazing.”

Another one of the most-missed events with last year's drive-through only fair was the livestock auction and in-person animal showings. This year's return divided the auction into a two-day event, March 11 and 12. As to the exhibits, there were 662 this year, which marked a 48 percent decrease since 2020, a reduction likely due at least in part to the uncertainty surrounding whether the fair would run in full this year.

Fair attendees also enjoyed a variety of musical presentations, including Outlaw Mariachi; a Billy Idol Tribute Band, Idol X; jazz from PureMajik and Valley Jazz, among others. More entertainment came from stilt walkers, the expert humor and balloon crafts of Balloonacy, and
Godfrey the Magician.

In all, the fair's return was a joyous event from carnival riders to Demolition Derby fans and teens enjoying High School Madness.
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