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Southwest Florida Fair celebrates 90 years

4/11/2014

By Linda McNatt

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Celebrating 90 years of food, fun and fund raising was a great success for the people of southwest Florida this year. The Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair was held  February 27 to March 9, and it couldn't have been a better experience, fair manager Fran Crone said.

"We had one of the best years we've ever had," Crone said, a few days after the fair closed. "We had four record-breaking days. We had two days that were kind of rainy, but the rest of the time, it was sunny and mild."

Perfect weather for a perfect fair, held in celebration of "making memories since 1924."

The fair started in 1919 at Terry Park with $250 allocated by the Lee County commissioners. In 1924, the name was changed to the Southwest Florida Fair. The Southwest Florida and Lee County Association and the local Shriners worked together to expand and improve the fair. The fair was re-located to the Lee Civic Center in 1979.

Even through the years of World War II, unlike many fairs across the United States, this fair went on, said Crone, who is in her first year of fair management. The civic center provides about 100 acres of grounds, and about one-fourth of that area is taken up by the fairgrounds, said Crone.

This year, the admission price to the fair at the gate was $8 for adults and $5 for children. But there were pre-advance tickets offered for $5 and $3. On Senior Citizens/Veterans Day and Harry Chapin Food Bank Night from 2 to 6 p.m. on March 3, admission was $5 for those two groups but a $2 free coupon featured in the fair program took the price down to $3 for all.

There was also a Mega-pass available for $25. That price covered fair admission and all rides for one day. Monday and Tuesday night had a $12 ride band available, and Midnight Madness offered everything for $25 from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The senior and veterans'  day and the food bank night offered one of the best experiences of the fair, said Crone. On food bank night, admission was free for fair visitors who donated three cans of food. Proceeds from gate admissions also went to the food bank. Last year, the fair raised more than $5,000 in cash and took in 7,500 pounds of food to help feed the hungry in southwest Florida and Lee County. This year, the amount exceeded 2013's figures.

In addition, the fair also partnered with Sheriff Mike Scott of Lee County to help distribute 36,000 fair tickets to public, elementary-aged school students to allow them to attend the fair for free, said Crone. The Junior Deputy Fair Pass promotion was available for students from ages 5 to 11.

"The fair association is a 501(c)3, non-profit organization and re-donates to a number of other non-profits," Crone said. "We give to a number of local 4H clubs, United Way, Breaking Free and the Shrine. We also offer scholarships to graduating seniors. In 2013, more than $48,000 was donated back to the community."

The Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair doesn't typically present concerts at the fair. Fair officials have long advocated presenting more community-inspired entertainment and making it a part of the fair admission .  At the seniors/veterans event, for example, the Hat Boys Band performed as well as the popular Calendar Girls of Florida. There were also health screenings sponsored by the local hospital, Lee Memorial Health Services. Snead Eye Care, insurance companies and the veterans' administration  also participated in the health fair held at the Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair.

 The always popular agricultural and animal events were also a big hit, according to Crone. There were 300 exhibitors on several days with both large and small animals, she said. Both the Future Farmers of American and local 4H chapters participated in the exhibits. Several of the students sold the animals they had raised and put money in their own pockets to help pay for future college expenses.

One popular act at the fair was the Gator Boys, an Animal Planet television show where the "boys" tame wild alligators with their bare hands. Grizzly Bears, based in  Florida, also entertained. The Grizzly Experience brought fair visitors in close contact with a 700-pound grizzly bear named Tonk and two adorable cubs named Boo-Boo and Yogi.

A motorsports arena was a new feature of the 2014 fair. The new facility hosted Grasscar Lawnmower Racing and a demolition derby put on by Hardcord Events and Entertainment, LLC.

The midway was  operated by Reithoffer Shows of Gibsonton, Florida. The midway came with 46 exciting rides, and Crone said she got several positive comments from fair visitors about the midway features.

There was also a magic show, plenty of live music, photo opportunities with Jimmy Riffle from the Gator Boys and also photo opportunities with Those Funny Little People of America's Got Talent fame.

Quilt making, canning and crafting exhibits provided a link with the past. A new horse arena was unveiled, and there were so many entries for the livestock show that some had to be turned away, said Crone.

"Goat agility contests brought smiles to young and old," she said. "Local students and 4H members showed off their projects. People had the opportunity to learn how the cowboys do what they do, and there was an impressive beef breeding show and sale. Rabbits, chickens and horses were judged. Those were just a few of the many agricultural events that are at the heart of the nearly century-old fair."

The Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair is held on the grounds of the Lee County Civic Center, located on Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers. The fair is dedicated to promoting agriculture, horticulture, creative arts and educational opportunities while also providing quality entertainment for the citizens of the area.

The Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair  is a district fair, covering the counties of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.


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