John Kegebein, volunteer CEO of the Agriculture History Project, examines photographs that were recently donated to the AHP Wednesday. Kegebein has been involved with the Santa Cruz County Fair for 50 years. (Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)
WATSONVILLE — As John Kegebein gets ready to celebrate 50 years at the Santa Cruz County Fair next week, the longtime volunteer and former manager reflects on a half-century of changes.
“We live in a different time,” said the Illinois-native who was tempted by the lack of snow to stay and settle in Watsonville after being discharged from the Army at Fort Ord.
Kegebein got his start at the fairgrounds working in maintenance in 1963.
Back then, dairies still had a presence in the area, and there were more than 40 4-H clubs in the region. The youth entries filled the animal barns during the fair, including those presented and tended by Kegebein’s own son, Dave, who has since followed in his father’s footsteps and is the current fair manager.
“The Harvest Building would be three-quarters full of apples alone,” Kegebein said, with racks upon racks of the fruit, reflecting the significance the crop had at one time in the Pajaro Valley, now dominated by strawberries and caneberries.
“The aroma itself was spectacular,” he said.
During his tenure, Kegebein saw the inclusion of new departments, including Hobbies and now there are 19 of them, up from 10 when he started, ranging from Poetry to Homebrewing and Amateur Winemaking, a sign of changing tastes and interests.
“When I first started there wasn’t a horse show,” he said.
Now it is held every day of the fair, and thanks to infrastructure improvements you can see horse shows throughout the year at the fairgrounds.
When the young Kegebein was maintaining the grounds — lending his skilled hands to carpentry, construction, plumbing, anything that was called for — the grand stage did not exist; instead musical groups would perform on a bandstand on the racetrack, acts including the Lennon Sisters, the Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels.
Kegebein, who grew up on a dairy farm in Crystal Lake, Illinois, started working at the fairgrounds after a stint at Marinovich Cold Storage Plant in Watsonville.
Though he had no direct experience, he knew that he “liked to mow lawns,” and the 105-acre grounds had plenty of those.
That first fair, the then 27-year old was up and on the grounds at 5 a.m. the day before it opened and didn’t get to bed at all the first night.
“People don’t realize how much work it takes to put on this production,” he said, adding that “minds would be blown” if more people understood the hefty time commitment volunteers make to put on the fair each year.
During the mid 1960s, the fair got some extra help from a rather unusual source.
Driving a 1952 Chevy one-ton truck, Kegebein would pick up prisoners from Santa Cruz to work for a few hours at the fairgrounds after first treating them to a smorgasbord lunch.
“I felt sorry for the guys,” he said. One of the men, an older man who wore bandages on his feet, has stuck in his mind after all these years.
Kegebein said just by looking at him you knew he was only in jail because he had no other place to go. While the old man was at the fairgrounds, he would let him rest among the flowers, to feel the soft petals and grass on his feet.
After leaving his position as senior maintenance man in 1993 to start a redwood planter-making business, Kegebein continued to volunteer at the fair and served on the fair board. In 1991, he became fair manager and served until his retirement in 1998. Then in 2007 he resumed the manager position for a couple years.
While Kegebein continues to work putting on the fair each year, along with a team of dedicated volunteers, he also serves as volunteer CEO of the Agricultural History Project, located at the fairgrounds.
“The only thing I haven’t been is the full-time secretary,” said Kegebein, while sitting at a computer, checking emails.
Well, there is always next year.
Additional reporting by Tyler Flesner
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