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February 15, 2020
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Walk through history

WATSONVILLE — The Santa Cruz County Fair begins Wednesday, and volunteers at the Historic Rodgers House are gearing up for visitors to come tour a piece of Watsonville history.

Built in 1870 by James and Malvina Rodgers, the house was originally located on East Lake Avenue adjacent to where the East Lake Shopping Center is today. In 1999 it was moved to its current location at the fairgrounds.

History permeates every nook and cranny of the large house, which in its original form had six bedrooms, two fireplaces and a four-story water tower. Carrol Rodgers and his wife, Esther, moved into the house in the 1920s. Esther was the sister of renowned author John Steinbeck.

“We take a lot of pride in this house,” said Loretta Estrada, longtime fair supporter who led and chaired the restoration of the house. “It’s been a community effort to save it.”

Visitors to the County Fair will get the chance to tour the home with a knowledgeable guide. The tours prove to be popular every year, Estrada said.

“Each tour is a little bit different, depending on your guide,” Estrada said. “Everyone has their own knowledge and interests about the house. I think that makes it more interesting.”

Guests can also sign up for a special evening walkthrough of the house on Sept. 13 from 6-9 p.m. The house’s lights will be dimmed—giving the illusion of candlelight. Volunteers will be dressed in period clothing.

“It’s always a great time,” Estrada said. “People seem to love it. It’s like they stepped back in time.”

New items in the house include a new secretary desk, as well as an ornate set of china donated by Carl and Loretta Dobler. The china, rimmed with platinum and giving off a multi-colored sheen, will be on display on the long dining room table.

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The dining room now has an ornate setting of Chinaware, which features platinum accents. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian 

The house recently received a fresh coat of paint, and colorful banners will adorn the outside—in keeping with this year’s fair theme, “Round Up the Red, White and Blue.”

Esther Steinbeck-Rodgers lived in the Rodgers House until she died in 1986, and soon after Stewart Kett purchased the house from her heirs. The Kett family eventually donated the house to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in 1998.

The house was designated a Historical Landmark by the City of Watsonville in 1987, and by the County of Santa Cruz in 2001.

“It’s such a unique piece of history,” Estrada said. “You won’t find this kind of thing at any other fairgrounds. Trust me, I’ve been to a lot of county fairs. We are really lucky.”

The County Fair runs Sept. 11-15 at the Fairgrounds, 2601 East Lake Ave., Watsonville.

Fair Management Team Leader Dave Kegebein said things are running smoothly in the lead-up to opening day.

“We’re pretty busy,” Kegebein said. “This is crunch time for us. But things are coming together.”

Most of the classic attractions of the annual fair will return this year, including livestock and horse events, art and education displays, live music, food and drink vendors, a carnival and more.

Popular hypnotist Michael Mezmer returns, as well as All Alaskan Racing Pigs, Wild West Turkey Stampede, Brad’s World of Reptiles and kids pop band Twinkle Time. Yesterday’s Farm will also be open to give guests a peek inside the work of the Agricultural History Project.

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The Rodgers House and adjoining water tank, which were moved from East Lake Avenue to the fairgrounds in 1999, have recently undergone a major paint job. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

But there are some new additions, Kegebein said. On opening night, Sept. 11, Los Moralitos Circus performs at the fair for the first time. The group will be set up at the baseball park.

“It should be a great addition and a way to kick things off,” Kegebein said.

There are also some new food booths this year, including a Hawaiian food booth featuring a long list of Hawaiian barbecue dishes and signature fruit bowls.

Tickets are $14 for general admission, $10 for seniors and $7 for children 6-12. Parking is $10. For special pricing and a full schedule of events visit

Johanna Miller
Johanna Miller
Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study English and Media. She covers the arts, business and agriculture.