Sunday Favorites: The History of the Manatee County Fair

Merab Favorite
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. Some of my friends paid their college tuition in money they made entering livestock. The fair goes way back, here's the story.

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 my 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 to Palmetto High and 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.

The Manatee County Fair dates back to 1915 when the Bradenton Board of Trade first approved the project to emulate the Gasparilla Carnival in Tampa. The Manatee County Fair Association, which still exists today, was 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. They found the perfect location at what is present-day Ninth Street in Bradenton. Today the property is compromised of LECOM Park, home of the Pirates/Mauraders, but back then, it was 69 acres of pasture, which was originally part of Joseph 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 late 1920s 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 expanded, but still kept the traditional aspects like the Ferris wheel and the scrumptious cuisine. And while attendance has grown steadily, those traditional aspects have remained the same.

Reader Comments
JAN 22, 2023  •  One other correction. The fair is run by the Manatee RIVER (not county) Fair Association.
JAN 22, 2023  •  Just one little comment. They don't sell and butcher heifers. Kids raise and sell steers.