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Critters arrive as 94th county fair gets closer to opening

PALMETTO — Pickup trucks and sport utilities dotted the Manatee County Fairgrounds on Tuesday as their drivers unloaded rabbits, poultry, swine and plants for judging and showing.Dairy cows will be arriving today.

All the preparations are for the 94th Manatee County Fair, which kicks off 5 p.m. Thursday and runs through Jan. 24 at the fairgrounds, 1303 17th St. W., Palmetto.

Like hundreds of other young people who have spent hours getting their animals or plants ready for these 10 days, Kelli Gallicchio, 14, of Bayshore High School, arrived with her flawlessly groomed rabbits in their roomy cages.

Kelli, who has been a 4-H Club member for seven years, is one of the county’s best at showing rabbits. In her career, she has earned an estimated 100 blue ribbons. She is expected to add more to her ribbon collection this year.

Her secret?

“You have to check them a lot,” said Kelli, who lives in Bradenton. “They get ear mites and their fur can knot. You are always brushing them out.”

Kelli’s advice to someone thinking of raising rabbits for the fair?

“All the work is worth it for the education and the fun you have, but you have to really be an animal lover to do it,” she said. “You have to put in time and sacrifice.”

Besides the youth livestock exhibitors and their upcoming shows, the fair is about midway rides, hamburgers, sausage sandwiches, sugary confections and strawberry shortcake. It’s about admiring arts and crafts. It’s about hundreds of volunteers setting up myriad exhibits.

But it’s also about packing fair venues to hear nationally known entertainers.

This year the traditions continue with headliners Gloriana at 8 p.m. Friday, The Bellamy Brothers at 8 p.m. Saturday, John Anderson at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage bluegrass band at 8 p.m. Jan. 22 and bright newcomer Jake Owen at 8 p.m. Jan. 23.

Fairgoers will immediately notice that the Ayers and Snyder buildings and Bell Annex have been torn down near Gate 3 to make way for a new performance area across from the Harllee Building.

In place of the buildings, the fair erected a $500,000 exhibit hall that broke ground Oct. 9 and was complete Dec. 31.

Also new this year is the departure of Ellenton United Methodist Church from their well-known strawberry shortcake concession stand near the front of the fair.

The church reluctantly gave up its booth due to the advancing ages of their volunteers.

But Parrish’s relatively new Hope International Ministries took over the booth.

Their pastor, The Rev. Ron Kutinsky, promises the Methodist church’s famous strawberry shortcake will continue, complete with the same recipes.

“We will still have homemade biscuits for the shortcake,” said church member Mary Borntreger.

As usual, hundreds of volunteers make the fair go.

“We couldn’t do a fair without our volunteers,” said fair manager Dan West. “It’s really a grassroots thing. Like here, on Tuesday, you have parents unloading animals and helping set things up.”

Arts and crafts at the fair have grown this year, with 515 exhibitors contributing 1,834 exhibits, said Dianna Baker, arts and crafts chairwoman.

“We have it all,” said Eileen Hoffner, the new associate director of arts and crafts. “You can clearly see the talent of Manatee County in the incredible fine arts, photography, culinary, horticulture and quilting.”

Exhibitors relish a ribbon, but a goal of many will be to win the first Susan Keen Award, awarded by the arts and crafts committee to the most unique and creative entry of the entire fair.

“It’s named in the memory of Susan, who was our arts and crafts director for five years and recently passed away,” Baker said. “She was much loved.”

Admission to the fair, which opens at noon most days and closes at 10 p.m. or midnight, is $7 for an adult age 13 and older, $6 for a senior age 55 and up, $5 for a child ages 6 to 12 and free for children age 5 and younger. Information: 722-1639 or 722-8951.

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