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Silkwood: The Glue that brought Orange County Together

Silkwood 2:07, 1893
Ella Congdon (American, 1871 - 1920)
Oil on canvas
Bowers Museum Collections

In The Beginning

The creation of Orange County in 1889 was not universally well received, and its unfolding led to some discontent in the formative years of the new county. Eventually it would be the Orange County Fair, to date one of the most popular Orange County events, and a horse named Silkwood that effectively brought our citric county together. 

County Seat: Musical Chairs Edition

Particularly to the chagrin of residents of Anaheim, it was made public all too late that delegates from Santa Ana had ventured up to Sacramento with ulterior motives and money in hand to pass a vote for Orange County’s Independence from Los Angeles. With a whopping $500 to grease certain bureaucratic palms, these representatives secured their goal of setting a gerrymandered county line, effectively ensuring that Santa Ana—and not Anaheim—would become the county seat. The result was a reasonably irked Anaheim as well as a few other cities that felt that they should have become the county seat. Were it not for the fair and the sense of camaraderie spawned by Silkwood, who preceded other famous horses like Seabiscuit as a rallying underdog, the distinct cities of Orange County could still be at odds.

First Annual Fair Life Membership Ticket
Orange County Fair Association; Santa Ana, California
Paper; 2 x 4 1/2 in.
Gift of Miss Gertrude Montgomery
Second Annual Fair Life Membership Ticket
32nd District Agricultural Association; Santa Ana, California
Paper; 2 x 4 1/2 in.
Gift of Miss Gertrude Montgomery

To Be Fair

There is no evidence that bringing the new county together was the intention of the first Orange County Fair. Loosely conglomerated events had previously been held around the same time as a way for farmers to show off their exceptional crops and scratch an itch for horse racing. Whatever the exact motivation may have been, the idea of an organized fair coalesced quickly after the county formed. With the establishment of the Orange County Fair Association, or the 32nd District Agricultural Association for the 1891 fair, a previously unseen degree of planning went in to the First Annual Fair. Exhibits of gargantuan pumpkins, watermelons up to 80 pounds, and other notable produce were held in French’s Opera House in Santa Ana; livestock were similarly awarded prizes in an outdoor enclosure; and the main event was held at the one-mile oval track which once stood at Bristol Street and Edinger Avenue. It was here that Silkwood raced his way into the collective hearts of Orange Countians.

J. Willits riding as driver to Silkwood, c. 1892. Courtesy of the Tustin Area Historical Society.

Jacob the Jockey

Owned and driven by Jacob Willits, an elder Kansan who dressed as a bearded veteran of the Union army, Silkwood was already known throughout the county as a good pacer when he was first entered in the 1890 races. Now facing notable opponents from Los Angeles County, his victories within the races wildly expanded his reputation as the dark horse from Orange County. Up until 1894 crowds grew larger and larger every year, excited to see who Silkwood would next beat. The largest single peak of Silkwood-mania came in 1892 when the beloved horse was billed to race against a trotter from Los Angeles against which Silkwood had lost on its home turf in the previous year. A $1500 purse was offered to the winner and the crowd was tense. When the dust had settled, Silkwood had won the race with a time of 2:07, exceptional considering the buggy he pulled. Between 1890 and 1894 Silkwood became more than just an attraction, he was a local legend. He was photographed like a celebrity, painted by fans, and even myths formed: Jacob Willits was often accused of feeding his star horse a diet of pumpkins, which he slyly perpetuated. When Silkwood raced against horses and drivers from Los Angeles County he was advertised as “Our Silkwood.”

Program Santa Ana Races, Nov 5, 1892
32nd District Agricultural Association; Santa Ana, California
Paper; 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 in.
Gift of Mr. William McPherson

Squeezed Together

In after years all [of Orange County’s] men shook hands, were friends again, feeling that the new county had been a blessing to the people as indeed it has been.
Henry Kuchel, Editor of the Anaheim Gazette

No one stays at the top forever, especially in horse racing. In 1895 Silkwood lost his first race at an Orange County Fair. Dejected by this defeat, Orange Countians' attendance of the fair dwindled the following year. Other horses were put forward to be local favorites capable of beating Los Angeles County titans, but none consistently received the fame that Silkwood had earned. However, Silkwood had already helped realize a far bigger victory than winning first place in a race. When the Orange County Fair reopened in 1897 under different management, many of the wounds of the county's establishment had healed. The new fair had far more events to choose from and featured what the Orange County Fair hails as “the first Ladies Day on record.” Over time the fair has continued to evolve into the beloved celebration of Orange County culture it is today.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research. 

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