The fair first took place in the year 1890 and consisted of some minor exhibits in Santa Ana and a horse race. From 1889 to 1894 the fair was run by the Orange County Community Fair Corporation, but was then taken over by the Orange County Fair Association, Inc. Early fairs mainly consisted of horse races and livestock shows, but around 1900 new carnival-like attractions were added and the fair become a yearly occurrence. The fair was located in Santa Ana, except for a brief interval after World War I, when it was moved to Huntington Beach.
Starting in 1916, the fair was managed by the Orange County Farm Bureau. An Orange County Fair Board was elected in 1925, and the fair was moved to Anaheim with the addition of a rodeo and carnival. Following World War II the 32nd District Agricultural Association was formed by the state of California, and it took on the task of running the fair. The state purchased land from the Santa Ana Army Air Base and set some of it aside for use as a new fairgrounds. In 1949 the fair became a five-day-long event and was relocated to the old army base, which quickly became the permanent location.
The city of Costa Mesa was incorporated in 1953 with the fair residing in its boundaries. The fairgrounds’ 150 acres has been the home of the fair ever since 1949 and has expanded to an annual 23 day summer event.