The fun has begun: Manatee County Fair delights opening night crowds

There are oh so many possibilities at the 103rd Manatee County Fair.

Shake hands with a capuchin monkey (he doesn’t charge much), catch a puppet show, make your own strawberry shortcake (extra whipped cream, of course) or spin yourself silly on glowing carnival rides.

Crowds enjoyed all of that and more Thursday as they took to the fairgrounds in Palmetto on opening night.

A four-pig race at Pork Chop Downs quickly drew spectators; cheers broke out as the swine crossed the finish line.

Next door, a petting zoo offered close encounters with animals including goats, llamas, a kangaroo, a tortoise and a camel. Unusual livestock breeds like Scottish highlander cattle and zebu looked for handouts of carrot chips.

One group of visitors wandered into the tent just in time for a unique experience.

Right before their eyes, a painted desert sheep gave birth to a baby lamb in its enclosure.

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Ryan Ballogg

The new lamb sprawled out in the hay as its mother licked its patchy coat clean.

The lambs only give birth about twice a year, according to Jay Phillips of Show-Me Safari.

Other fair-goers surveyed food options like elephant ears, funnel cake and fresh doughnuts. The smell of steak tips permeated the air as steam rose off of cook tops.

People found sights to enjoy at every turn around the fairgrounds, including agricultural displays, colorful plants and decorated hay bales.

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Decorated hay bales are on display throughout the fairgrounds at the 103rd Manatee County Fair. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

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The Chaires Building, home to the fair’s arts and crafts exhibits, was another popular stop.

Inside, paintings, photos, woodwork, quilting and loads of other locally made crafts were on display, some of them adorned with winning ribbons.

Cookbooks made up entirely of recipes submitted to the fair were on sale at a table, including current and past years. The tradition goes back more than two decades.

Ryan Ballogg

In another corner, a miniature fairground was circled by two model trains. The display was created by members of RealRail Center and Model Railroad Store in Bradenton.

Ryan Ballogg

Nearby, the Master Gardeners’ Educational Garden was open for visitors to enjoy. Herb potting demonstrations and gardening classes for kids will be held in the gardens throughout the fair.

As darkness fell on opening day, crowds gathered at the illuminated midway for a spin in the cool January air.

There’s lots more fun to come in the next 10 days.

The festival offers a full schedule of special events, and main stage entertainment kicks off on Friday night with country musician Mark Wills.

Other new events this year include the first annual doggy pageant this Saturday and the first annual doughnut eating contest on Jan. 26.

Find out more at manateecountyfair.com.