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County Fair a Blue Ribbon Event for Local Agriculture

By: Melissa Morgan, Curator

Since the 1800s, county fairs have been held throughout the United States as a way to showcase the best of the community’s agricultural and domestic products. It is also an annual celebration for the community to come together, share, and learn. The Manatee County Fair has been held since 1916, with a few off years due to the Depression and World War II.

Aerial view of Manatee County Fair midway. Booths, crowds, and a Ferris wheel are visible

Manatee County Fair midway when it was held in Bradenton on 9th Street in the current day LECOM Field area, c.1922.

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Image Collection

The Fair has been held at its current location since 1951. While much has changed over the years for the Fair, one core element continues - agriculture and youth education activities of FFA and 4-H are still the heart of the fair.

In the early days of the Fair, the agricultural shows were not geared specifically for the youth. According to the 1923 and 1926 Official Premium Lists from Manatee County Public Library’s Eaton Room, farmers could submit a variety of produce, livestock, and horticulture products to be judged. Prize ranged from $0.25 to $2.00. Back in the 1920s, school kids were encouraged to submit their prize corn crop as well as school work. Mathematics graphs from high school students to a fourth graders’ geography booklet could be seen on display.

Large room filled with displays of lower arrangements, celery bunches, and Celo soda in the back left corner. People pose stiffly around the room for photo

Flower and celery display at the Manatee County Fair. Booth for Celo Celery Soda is visible in the back left corner of the room, c.1930.

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Image Collection

With the founding of the Florida Future Farmers of America in 1929, and the Bradenton & Palmetto High Chapters in the 1930s, youth livestock shows began to enter the Fair along with the commercial livestock shows and sales. For many FFA students past and present the Fair is one of several competitions and shows that they participate in throughout the year. In the Manatee County Agricultural Museum’s collection we have two scrapbooks from the Bradenton Chapter FFA at Manatee High School from the 1930s-1950s. These books show the many activities the students participated in including livestock showing at the Manatee County Fair. They also went to livestock shows throughout the state, participated as livestock judging teams, worked in the school’s laboratory garden, cultivated their own agricultural projects at home, and even helped to build their Vocational Agriculture Building on campus.

FFA Student leads a steer through the show arena at the fair.

A FFA member leads his steer through the arena for judging or auction bidding at the Manatee County Fair, c.1979.

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Image Collection

Today there is no longer an FFA Chapter at Manatee High School, but Palmetto High School still has a very active FFA chapter whose charter dates from 1939. According to Michael Ingram, who has been an FFA advisor and alumni volunteer for about 10 years at Palmetto High, today’s FFA Fair projects are still one of many activities students participate in, and it is a project that influences the rest of the year’s curriculum. Students with swine projects receive their pigs in October as babies and 5 months later they have turned into 250-260 pound hogs. In order to compete at the Fair, a pig has to be a minimum of 220 pounds and meet the back fat standard. A steer project can take about a year beginning with selecting the animal in the spring most are 13-18 months at fair time. The students spend hundreds of hours with their animals to prepare them for the show ring at the Fair and attend showmanship clinics which teach them how to set up their animals for proper judging. Other animal projects also include poultry, rabbits, and goats. All of these projects are done in order to further FFA’s mission to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.

child in 4-h uniform showing a goat

A 4-H member showing a goat during the Manatee County Fair, c.1979.

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Image Collection

County fairs were started with an agricultural focus, and looking at material from the early Manatee County Fairs one can see that agriculture was front and center. It is encouraging to see that today in 2017, the Manatee County Fair is still focused on our local agricultural industry. The Manatee County Fair has one of the largest livestock shows in the state, which definitely earns the Fair a blue ribbon.

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