Downey Marks 35th Birthday

To many folks, Downey is another off-ramp on the 710 Freeway, indistinguishable from the dozens of other off-ramps that usher cars into Southeast Los Angeles.

But the city's leaders remember Downey in the old days--something akin to "Petticoat Junction"--which makes it worth celebrating. And celebrate the town will.

A Country Faire, to commemorate the city's 35th anniversary of incorporation, will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday in Furman Park, 10419 Rives Ave. (The street is named for James C. Rives, a turn-of-the century judge who built Downey's Rives Mansion in classic antebellum style.)

The fair "is geared to what we did in 1956," organizer Lois Buchanan said, "with lots of old-time games."

How did small-town America entertain itself in '56? With pie-eating, yelling and baby-crawling contests, cakewalks, hot dogs, pizzas, ice cream and brownies, all of which will be available free Saturday.

Arts and crafts, bands, entertainers, a chili cook-off and an antique car show are part of the deal, too. And in another nod to yesteryear, the city has hired a cow "to pet and have your picture taken with," Buchanan said.

"This is more of a nostalgia type thing, to remind everyone of what Downey used to be like when it was orange groves and dairy farms," she said.

As cities go, Downey is relatively young. But its history dates to 1859, when John G. Downey, Southern California's first land developer, saw great financial potential in a tract 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

John Downey, a California governor from 1860 to 1862, cleared out the farms and began building homes in Downey City in 1873. In 1874, he persuaded the government to bypass two other more established towns and lay railroad tracks through the middle of Downey.

The boom years began, with houses popping up like mushrooms and industries growing. Today, Downey has 50 churches, the earliest remaining example of a McDonald's original hamburger stand and Rockwell's Space Systems Division, none of which Gov. Downey probably imagined when he died a rich man in 1893.

No known Downey heirs are living, according to John Vincent, president of the Downey Historical Society. And except for his name, the man's legacy is all but gone in town. It remains "only here," Vincent said, "at the historical center."

The chili cook-off starts at 8 a.m. The carnival opens at 10 a.m. and continues until 3 p.m. For more information, call City Hall (310) 869-7331, ext. 256.

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