It started more than a century ago, but in a lot of ways the Manatee County Fair is still the same down-home country fair it’s always been.
The county has grown, and has become more urbanized and suburbanized. But people still love the agricultural flavor of the fair.
“It’s the community that wants to keep this fair going, said Daniel West, the general manger of the Manatee River Fair Association, the group that puts on the Manatee County Fair each year. “A lot of people who volunteer for the fair don’t work on farms, don’t live on farms, but they think it’s important to keep the agricultural base of the fair.”
This year’s Manatee County Fair, which opens Thursday, is number 101, and West said it’s a year for looking ahead to the next century. But the fair’s agricultural elements are expanding all the all the time.
In fact, he said, the agriculture and livestock shows won’t even all fit into the 11-day fair.
“Some of the livestock, the cows and the swine, started arriving last night,” he said Tuesday. “We’re having one of the livestock events, swine showmanship, before the fair even starts.”
But even for people who aren’t so much into livestock, there’s still plenty to enjoy at the fair this year. There’s an expanded midway (including a brand-new ride called “Alien Abduction”), lots of great food and a huge arts and crafts area. But best of all, for a lot of fair fans, there’s some big-name entertainment.
This year, the headliner is a Manatee County Fair favorite Ricky Skaggs, making his third appearance at the fair.
“Everyone knows Ricky Skaggs,” West said. “The country people, the bluegrass people, the gospel music people. We’ve had him here twice before and both times it was standing room only.”
Skaggs with his band Kentucky Thunder is scheduled to play at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Skaggs has won 14 Grammy Awards, in country, bluegrass and children’s music categories dating back to 1983. Kentucky Thunder is his Grammy-winning bluegrass band.
The following Friday, Jan. 20, brings the Manatee County fair debut of Little Texas, a country band that hit its commercial peak in the 1990s with such hits as “What Might Have Been,” “My Love” and “Amy’s Back in Austin.”
“The thing about these classic country bands,” West said, “is you play their songs on Google and you keep saying, ‘Oh, I forgot about this one,’ ‘I forgot about this one too.’ ”
Sunday’s entertainment highlight is Alter Eagles, and Eagles tribute band that West said ‘sounds just like the Eagles.’ ”
Popular contemporary Christian performer Matt Maher is scheduled to play at 7 p.m. Jan. 19.
Those are the biggest names, West said, but there’s music and other entertainment all through the Manatee County Fair, including daily shows from Dennis Lee, who’s been a fixture at the Manatee County Fair, as well as the Florida State Fair and the Florida Strawberry Festival, for many years.
So from swine to Skaggs, it’s shaping up to be a great year for the fair. West said officials have been keeping their eyes on extended weather forecasts and it appears as though we’re in for some excellent skies and temperatures, so big crowds are possible.
“Last year we had 163,000 people, in round numbers,” West said. “Our record was in 2012 when we had 172,000. We’d love to break that 172,000 mark this year.”
Details: Jan. 12-22, Manatee County Fairgrounds, 1303 17th St. W., Palmetto. Various hours. Adult (13 and older) $8, senior (55 and older) $7, military and children ages 6-12 $5, Children age 5 and under admitted free. 941-722-8951, manateecountyfair.com.