The Manatee County Fair has a lot of new features this year. Among them are a chance to feed marshmallows to a grizzly bear and feed rubber worms to a rainbow trout.
The theme for the 98th annual fair, which runs Jan. 16-26, is "Celebrating the Great Outdoors." Organizers searched the country to find entertaining attractions to offer fairgoers a chance to experience different aspects of outdoor life.
One is the International Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show, a three-man demonstration of such woodsy activities as log-rolling and wood-chopping.
Even though lumberjacks and Paul Bunyan are associated with the Northwest, the International Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show is based in St. Cloud. The show appeared at the Manatee County Fair once before many years ago, fair director Daniel West said.
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The lumberjack show will take place once or twice every day of the fair. Just a few steps down the path is another daily attraction called "A Grizzly Experience."
Dexter Osborn, his wife,
Megan, and their 2-year-old son, Hayden, travel the country with their bears Tonk, Yogi and Maggie.
"We do an educational experience," Dexter Osborn said. "We teach kids about bears and about how to be safe in bear territory."
The bears -- who range in size from 7-feet-tall to less than 4-feet -- interact with the crowd, but the Osborns don't ask them to do anything but "natural behavior," he said.
"They stand up on two legs and stuff like that," Osborn said. "The don't dance around in tutus."
At the end of each "Grizzly Experience," Osborn lets youngsters in the crowd feed Tonk, Yogi and Maggie "bear kabobs," which are actually marshmallows on a stick.
Another new outdoorsy attraction this year Lawton's Trout Farm. It's basically a swimming pool stocked with rainbow trout. Youngsters can fish for five minutes, using rubber worms. Almost everyone catches a fish, but they have to return what they catch.
Of course, not everything at the fair is new.
The fair, always packed with music, features country star Marty Stuart at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, Christian rock band Building 429 plays at 7 p.m. Sunday. (A story in Thursday's Weekend section of the Herald details on all the big-name music acts.)
There's plenty of non-musical entertainment, ranging from racing pigs and livestock shows to the hay bale decorating competition.
Hay bale decorating is new this year, but may become a permanent part of the fair. West said he asked 4H and FFA clubs to decorate hay bales anyway they wanted, as long as they fit the outdoors theme of the fair. Judging will be Friday, but bales will be on display for the whole fair.
"We had great participation," West said. "Eighteen 4H and FFA clubs decorated bales and they look fantastic. I'm sure we'll do that again next year."
And, of course, the fair's midway rides and food are back this year.
Also returning is Bradenton retiree Bob Geis and his four-person team, which built a huge, detailed N-gauge model railroad complete with accurate scale models of landmarks in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. It now measures 17 feet by 20 feet and grows more detailed every year.
"This is our fifth year at the fair," Geis said. "Any kid over the age that has their parent's permission, we will let them drive the train and we give them an engineer's hat."
Geis said he has been fascinated by trains all his life, but most children he meets at the fair, he says, "have never even seen one." He said several youngsters he met through showing his train have become model train enthusiasts.
The fair is at 1402 14th Ave. W., Palmetto. Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors (55 and older), $5 for military and children 6-12, free for children younger than 6.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.