By WARREN RESEN – NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association)
West Palm Beach, Florida: The year was 1912. Florida was the last frontier in the Continental United States and scattered outposts of civilization hugged both coasts. Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad had finally reached Key West.
Just a few miles inland it was swamp, prairie and forest, looking pretty much the same as when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500’s. If you have read Patrick Smith’s A Land Remembered you know what the land looked like back then.
That year, a group of West Palm Beach merchants decided to promote the region’s number one industry, agriculture. This was the beginning of the Palm Beach County Fair and Exposition. It survived the Great Depression, two World Wars, major changes in economic and social conditions and is today known as the South Florida Fair. Now a major regional event, it comes alive every January on 135 acres west of downtown West Palm Beach.
While maintaining a strong agricultural presence the South Florida Fair, like most fairs, has shifted its focus to expand the crowd pleasing events featured on the Midway: food, rides and shows. The number of events is too long to list here. Go to the South Florida Fair website, www.southfloridafair.com, to check out what is being offered and when and what might be of interest to you.
Agriculture, the original focus of the Fair, is still a major attraction. Located in its own area called the Agriplex, exhibitors and contestants come from all over Florida to show off their animals, produce and skills, competing for that all important blue ribbon.
The enclosed air conditioned Large Animal Barn is 30,000 square feet and the mixed footing Large Animal Show Ring 24,000 square feet. There is a horse barn, tents displaying small animals and even a maternity barn for cows. The Forestry Service and Boy Scouts are in the Conservation Tent as are other exhibitors. Separate buildings house Agricultural Exhibits, an Apiary, the Rare Fruit Council, Green Market, and many more attractions. Not a bad showing for a largely urban setting.
In modern times, the Fair has had yearly themes ranging from Tales of the American West, Gateway to the Tropics, Sea Lion Splash, America’s National Parks and many, many more. The most popular ones from years past will be revisited for this 100th celebration as part of the Centennial Exposition in the South Florida Fair’s mammoth main 70,000 square foot building. Other buildings house crafts people and vendors selling all manner of goods.
And then there is the ever popular, family pleasing, Yesteryear Village showcasing the area’s rich history. Yesteryear Village is a replica of a rural community set on 10 acres featuring buildings and artifacts dating from the 1850’s to the 1950’s.
When the village comes to life every January, volunteers in period costumes inhabit the houses and Village Green.
Walking into Yesteryear Village will take you back to an earlier time when schools were one room affairs, houses used kerosene lamps for light, water was pumped by hand from wells and people kept livestock in their back yards. It was a much simpler time.
More than 20 historic and restored Florida buildings dating from the post-Civil War period surround the Village Green where entertainers perform for visitors, contests are held and Native American dancers recreate centuries old ceremonies.
Some lucky visitors will get to sample wild boar cooking over an open fire at the Hunting Camp. The Village Blacksmith will be working on his anvil. The fully stocked General Store will be open for business as will many other merchants.
All of this activity goes on for 17 days and nights and the nighttime views of the thousands of lights on the Midway are truly spectacular as visitors swirl, sweep and drop from great heights on the thrilling rides while children of all ages toss a ring or ball to try for the really big teddy bear prize. Win or lose, everyone has fun. Food vendors sell things of which no dietician would approve. But it’s only a one-day-a-year splurge for most.
The South Florida Fair will open its doors for its 100th year on January 13. It will close out its Centennial Exposition on January 29 when planning begins for its second century.
The South Florida Fair is off Southern Blvd. (SR 80) west of Florida’s Turnpike. Parking is FREE. For any additional information call 561-793-0333 or toll free in Florida at 800-640-FAIR.