Maynard Potter’s first day on the job as manager of the San Luis Obispo County Fair was Monday April 1, 1968 but the fair board didn’t hire a fool.
Replacing retiring manager Larry Lewin the 28-year old brought enthusiasm and new ideas to the job.
During his 25 year tenure the fair grew into an entertainment power house and changed its name to the Mid-State Fair. This reflected the growth from county agriculture fair to regional entertainment draw.
Some early ideas fizzled like the Mark Twain inspired frog jumping contest in 1970. Others like upgrading the grounds and bringing top level performers would bring in attendance from four surrounding counties.
When I took a full time job at the then Telegram-Tribune in 1986, acts that had been headliners at the Placer County Fair were playing on the free stages at the Mid-State Fair. Big national acts like Kenny Rogers or Charlie Daniels were on the main stage.
Potter was a perfectionist that inspired loyalty in some and others found inhibiting.
He would get a tractor to move food booths that were out of line by a few inches. When comedian Dana Carvey began dropping F-bombs onstage in a August 9, 1992 show, Potter walked onstage and personally delivered a note telling him to clean his act up. Some in the audience booed the intrusion but the manager said, “I decided it was better to pay the price (in criticism) then, than to pay the bigger price if I let it go to the end.”
The the fair manager is the center of a whirlwind of activity during the weeks leading up to and during the fair. Next to business cards on his desk was a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
After 25 years at the job it was not a happy parting.
In April 1993 Potter had been out on sick leave for two months with high blood pressure.
The then Telegram-Tribune filed a written public records request to the California State Department of Food and Agriculture and it was revealed that the fair had paid 3 women $50,000 to settle a sex discrimination case. The longtime employees had filed complaints that they had been denied an opportunity to apply for an open position at the fair because of their gender.
Potter then filed a $6 million dollar lawsuit against the fair saying his authority had been undermined by the settlement.
A settlement was negotiated in April 1995 after both the state Food and Agriculture Department and Potter agreed not to pursue claims against the other. No money was involved in the settlement according to a state attorney.
Maynard Lee Potter, 70, died at Emmett, Idaho on March 19, 2010 where he had retired to a ranch.
His legacy is a fair that still supports agriculture but thanks to attendance driven by entertainment it has a strong financial position.
When he arrived in 1968 the fair was a five night event with two nights of entertainment and two nights of rodeo. The final night, Sunday was a weak draw with no event scheduled. Judy Glenn was the headliner that year. The next year Potter was able to sign Buck Owens for two nights and the profit from those shows began to expand the entertainment roster. As acts began to have good experiences at the venue it became less difficult to sell to agents. San Luis Obispo County was no longer a dark spot on band tour maps.
In 1986 the manager estimated that $4-5 million dollars had been put back into capital improvements in an effort to remake the fairgrounds from a dusty farm-carnival into the Disneyland of fairs.
The rock waterfall at the center of the fairgrounds is called Maynard’s Mountain.