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. 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 fair’s early days, the agricultural shows were not geared specifically for 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. Prizes ranged from $0.25 to $2.00. Back in the 1920s, schoolkids 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.
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.
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 adviser 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 five 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- to 18 months old at fair time.
The students spend hundreds of hours with their animals to prepare them for the show ring 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 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.
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 our fair a blue ribbon.
Stop by and visit the Historical Resources Department at the Harllee Barn for an interactive exhibit that is fun for all ages!
Melissa Dagenais is curator of the Manatee County Agricultural Museum. Contact her at Melissa.Dagenais@manateeclerk.com.