Fair Heralds Spring in Sarasota
Articles: Sarasota History
It’s not the chirp of the robin but the call of the midway barker and competition for the prize steer that announce the arrival of spring in Sarasota County. With its beginnings in 1924, the fair, or a substitute, has been a vehicle for showcasing local agriculture and home-produced goods as well as offering entertainment for most of the years since Sarasota County came into existence.
Soon after Sarasota County was formed in July 1921, community leaders worked to bring two new institutions (major league baseball and a county fair) to Sarasota in order to better promote the county to the rest of the world. In March 1923, the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce launched the Sarasota County Fair Association. Calvin and Martha Payne sold to the county and city 60 acres of prime real estate two blocks south of the new courthouse “for fairground and other park purposes.”
To convert the land into a fairground and baseball field, Mayor E.J. Bacon proclaimed a community work day in the fall of 1923. The above photo shows volunteers from the community working on an exhibition building in time for the first fair.
The Sarasota Times heralded the success of the first fair with full page headlines. For four days in January, airplane stunts, rodeo shows, horse races, and tournament riding provided specialty entertainment in addition to the agricultural, educational and domestic exhibits. Thursday’s program, January 24th, incorporated the opening events of the annual Sara de Sota Pageant.
After staging the fair at Payne Park for two years, the fair association bought land on the east side of Beneva Road at 12th Street. Apparently intending that this site would be used for many years by fairs ever increasing in size, the association constructed three buildings: one for agriculture, one for machinery and a roofed grandstand. Drawings of the buildings printed in the November 15, 1925, edition of the Sarasota Herald show industrial-scale buildings that reflect the popular architectural styles of the time: Spanish Colonial Revival, Art Moderne and Classical Revival.
To help attract crowds to the fair at its new site, the fair association brought in “Fearless” Jones and his daredevil act, “Autos That Pass in the Air.” For 25 cents, visitors could ride the bus from Five Points to the out-of-town fair. First-day attendance of 5,000 broke state records.
After only two fairs at the new site, Sarasotans were surprised to hear that the fair association had deeded the fairgrounds to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Greatest Show on Earth would move its winter quarters from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Sarasota after its 1927 season. As a consequence, the fair association was faced with finding a new location. For the next 20 years the fair, or a substitute exposition, floated among various sites in Sarasota and was often housed in borrowed tents. There was no fair of any kind in the early 1930s and during World War II.
In 1948 the fair association again acquired a permanent fairground, a site that has been associated with the fair ever since. In 1997, the Sarasota County Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker to the Sarasota County Agricultural Fair near the entrance to the fair.