|Manatee County Midway at the first fair in 1916.
PALMETTO – The Manatee County Fair brings back many memories to many different people. As a kid, it always seemed like it was the coldest day of the year when my mother bundled us up to ride the Ferris wheel. Last weekend, I found myself back at my old stomping grounds again, and I realized the fair hasn’t changed much in the three decades I’ve been attending. In fact, it really hasn’t changed much in the near century it has been in existence.
When I was in middle school, going to the fair was all about the thrill of riding rides and congregating with friends. There was a sense of independence that went along with roaming around freely without parents there to interrupt my social life.
Many of my friends would show livestock that they had raised from babes. Their parents put the money they earned from last year's cow or pig into feed and supplies for this year, then started a college fund with the profits. Those parents who were particularly supportive would purchase a whole heifer at the auction, have it butchered, and keep their family supplied with meat for an entire year.
In high school, the fair was adjacent from Palmetto Highand it was fun to travel across the street for lunch. Each of my friends would purchase something different; a foot-long corn dog, an elephant ear or a blooming onion. Then we’d share the cuisine, all of us relishing in the smorgasbord of options.
But as an adult with no kids of my own, I really had no desire to visit the carnival. The rides seemed juvenile, the food fattening and if you’ve seen one cow, you’ve seen them all.
However, once I smelled the familiar smell of farm animals and fair food and sight of the lights, I immediately begin to reminisce. I had a strange realization that the fair is one tradition that residents of Manatee County have clung to for just short of a century.
The Manatee County Fair dates back to 1915, when the Board of Trade first approved the project to emulate the Gasparilla Carnival in Tampa. The Manatee County Fair Association, which still exists today, formed in mid-February the following year and the first fair was held on the last day of that month.
Fair officials were so successful with their first endeavor, they began planning a municipal park that would not only accommodate the annual event, but also provide a place to play sports, such as baseball and golf. The found the prefect location at what is present-day Ninth Street in Bradenton. Today the property is compromised of McKechnie Field and some other local businesses, but back then, it was 69 acres of pasture, which was originally part of the Adams' estate. (Adams owned a third of the county at one point).
Workers cleared the land and fair dates of February 13-16, 1917, were announced. E.W. Stoltz began construction of the main exhibit building, which was 40 feet by 120 feet, with booths around the wall. The women's exhibits were arranged in the Clubhouse planned for both fair and golfing use. A 12-foot porch enclosed the building and a grandstand was constructed for viewers of ball games and Fair entertainment.
Everything was running splendidly until the early 1930s when the onset of the Great Depression hit the community head-on. Sponsorship for recreational activities was the first on the chopping block, and the fair was discontinued.
As the decade of destitution came to an end, 35 prominent men sought to revive the county’s favorite event. The fair was moved to a corrugated metal building near Palmetto Trailer Park, where it remains to this day.
The tough times weren’t over, during the World War II years, many of Palmetto's fair visionaries were shipped overseas. Exhibits were held in January 1942, but the fair was discontinued during the war years, then resumed again in 1951.
In the years that followed, the fair has expanded, but still kept the traditional aspects like the Ferris wheel and the scrumptious cuisine. And while attendance has grown steadily, and averages around 100,000 each year, those traditional aspects have remained the same. It was one of the traditions residents can depend on without any expectation for improvement. The Manatee County Fair is what it is, and we love it that way.
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