The Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival is located in Indio, an oasis situated in the vast California desert, approximately 130 miles east from Los Angeles. The Fair started as a festival to celebrate the end of the annual date harvest in the Coachella Valley, the major commercial date-producing area in the western hemisphere.
Dates were an unknown commodity in the valley until 1903 when date palms were transplanted here from Algeria. By the early 1920’s, enough acreage was planted to make dates a major crop for the area. In fact, the date industry represented Riverside County at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Date groves in the Coachella Valley were such a novelty that they became quite a tourist attraction.
With the popularity of the date gardens, the idea was planted for a date festival to be held in Indio City Park in 1921. The heavily publicized International Festival of Dates was promoted with an Arabian theme, a reference to the ancestral homeland of the date. A second festival was held the following year, but the interest for an annual fair waned. Instead, date agriculturalists promoted the crop at events such as the Southern California Fair in Riverside, the California State Fair and the Golden Gate International Exposition.
In 1937, the idea for an annual date festival came forth again and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors contracted the Indio Civic Club to organize and promote a third date festival. The newly re-named Riverside County Fair and the Coachella Valley Date Festival opened in 1938, drawing in 72 local vendors and over 5,000 attendants. An elaborate parade was staged through Indio that year featuring over 500 mounted entries along the then-unpaved Deglet Noor Street, beginning a tradition that continues to this year. Fair and parade attendants were encouraged to don Western apparel to fit the fair’s theme that year, which included wiskerenos, cowboy hats and rodeo events.
In 1940, the County invested $10,000 on 40 acres for the establishment of permanent fairgrounds. The grounds were expanded with the purchase of an additional 40 acres--including the date grove--eventually reaching its present-day size of 120 acres. Ground broke for construction on September 27, 1941, though all fair activity came to a halt in 1942 with World War II. After the war, Robert M.C. Fullenwider was hired to manage the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival. Fullenwider envisioned an Arabian Nights theme tying in the county fair with the desert region and date industry and as a nod to the 1921 International Festival of Dates.
Although many community members donated their time and energy to the Fair, two individuals made indelible marks with their creative contributions: writer and artist Louise Dardenelle, and retired Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver. Both were intrigued with the Arabian Nights theme. Ms. Dardenelle conceived the idea for an Arabian nights pageant, finishing a first draft before her death in 1947. Harry Oliver designed and supervised construction of the Fair’s Old Baghdad State, which was finished just in time for the first production of the fair’s first pageant in 1948. Under the direction of producer and choreographer Roy Randolph, Prince Khudadad in the Shadow of Destiny became an iconic feature of the Fair’s history.
Today, the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival remains an integral part of the greater Coachella Valley community and a major tourist attraction. It continues the legacy of decades-old desert traditions while celebrating our history and community, and of course, providing fun and excitement for everyone.