South Florida Fair History
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Vegetables Exhibit and Henry Flagler 1921

The South Florida Fair sprung to life in 1912 as the Palm Beach County Fair.

It was a time of innocence and boundless enthusiasm- giant strides were taken in science, industry and commerce.

Technological advancement boomed to such a degree that the U.S. Patent office issued a statement in 1906 saying, in effect, that everything worth inventing had already been invented. And, no one should expect anything very startling from that time forward.

After all, man had flown, harnessed electricity, and used the wireless airwaves for his pleasure - what more could you expect?

The telephone was still a novelty. Even in 1915, throngs flocked to the American Telephone and Telegraph display at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. They listened in open-mouthed wonder to talk emanating from New York, three thousand miles away.

Rural Free Delivery of mail brought a vast wealth of goods and merchandise via the Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, to everyone’s door - even in remote West Palm Beach, Florida.

Between 1912 and 1915, the A & P Grocery Chain expanded at a rapid pace. A new red and white fronted A & P store opened every three days achieving a total of 1,000 stores all over the country, South Florida included.

By 1912, automobiles were everywhere. There were 75 brands on the market ranging from the Abbott Detroit, to the Winton, including the moon, Locomobile, and Kline Kar. By some accounts, the number of makes nearly equalled the number of miles of paved roads in the U.S. at the time.

Science and industry could do no wrong. Mankind’s destiny was to live a life of ease and comfort with machines to shoulder his burdens and wondrous tools and gadgets to do his bidding.

There were no dark clouds on the horizon.

Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had no immediate plans of visiting Sarajevo. The sound of the terrible and foolish guns of August that ignited World War I were a few seasons in the future.

Everything was coming up roses - Four Roses, Ivory Soap, Campbell Soup, Bell Telephone, Florida Power and Light and big Havana cigars for a nickel.

However, a single event in 1912 served to put the world on notice that the gods of science and industry had a few wicked surprises up their sleeves, for the near and distant future. One such, first gave rise to the admonition, “Never play cards with the guy known as Doc, eat at place called Mom’s, or sail on a vessel billed as unsinkable.”

As might have been expected the Titanic, a gigantic wonder of the new century, on her maiden voyage, struck an iceberg off New Foundland, sunk like an anvil, and claimed the lives of 1513 passengers and crew.

Coincidentally, a like number, 1500 or so, citizens of West Palm Beach would, that same year of 1912, stage their first county fair.

It began at a meeting conducted on March 11, 1911, at which an ad hoc committee was put together to bring about the big event.

George C. Currie was made Chairman of the committee, acting with home were George C. Matthams, and George W. Inder of the Boosters Club. Through that spring and summer they signed-up two hundred names of people willing to join and help make the fair a reality.

A meeting was called for the last Thursday of October, 1911.

At this charter meeting, W. W. Blackmer was elected President, because as was noted in the minutes, “He has always been to the front and worked with a whole heart.”

It should be noted that this was a group of businessmen that worked in cooperation with the area farmers and agricultural leaders to create the first ever Palm Beach County Fair and Exposition.

They were professional and business leaders whose purpose was to promote the area’s one most important industry - agriculture.

They were boosters, plain and simple, for boostorism was rampant upon the land most particulary, in and around West Palm Beach.

While railroad magnate, Henry Morrison Flagler was busy building his railroads, hotels and Palm Beach Mansion, his minions, in the guise of the Model Land Company were busy on the west side of the lake.

Model, together with such firms as the Southern States Land and Timber Company, cleared off the brush and timber, dug canals and drained vast tracts of Everglade much land which were sold to big farming interests.

The Palm Beach County Fair of 1912 was, in a sense, a sample fair. It’s purpose was to showcase the quality of agriculture goods grown and harvested in the winter for shipment via the splendid new Florida East Coast Railroad to the great Northeastern markets.

Held over a four day period, the first fair set-up along the water, in amongst the coconut palms in an area close to the location of the present day County Courthouse.

Vegetables and other agricultural products were displayed in one large tent.

Farm Produce came in all over the County, a vast area larger than many states and as large as some sovereign nations. Among others, Hypoluxo, Boynton, Prosperity, Hobe Sound, Palm City, Pahokee, Juno, and Jupiter were represented.

A bountiful, beautiful display of vegetables grown in Juno claimed the Blue Ribbon, Presented in the name of Henry Morrison Flagler.

The West Palm Beach Women’s Club erected and operated two smaller tents, one of which served meals and the other provided women and children a rest area.

Mrs. Austin Allen recalled in an account published in the Palm Beach Post at the time of the fair’s fiftieth anniversary, “We served a delicious meal for 35 cents, cooked ourselves over a kerosene stove. We used nice dishes, linen table cloths and napkins, and silverware. One had the choice of Roast Beef, chicken, or ham, salad, coffee and pie- apple or pecan, or chocolate cake. Everything was homemade and portions were generous. If anyone wanted a second helping it was a nickel. Our warm gingerbread and cold buttermilk were a specialty.”

She added that, “ The West Palm Beach Women’s Club was practically paid for from the proceeds of these 35 cent dinners”.

The Tropical Sun boasted on March 13, 1912 the first county fair had come and gone. “After sixteen months of agitation we succeeded in putting the public a show that was as surprising as it was beautiful.”

By 1920 the Palm Beach County Fair had grown in size and scope. It was housed in a wooden two story building and the familiar tents in an area adjacent to the railroad station.

A story in the February 8th, 1920 Palm Beach Post by George G. Currie described the upcoming fair this way.

“The county fair officials are becoming more and more satisfied that the exhibitions on March 3, 4, 5, and 6th will be the best of the eight exhibitions that the fair association have put over.

“Mr. Harry S. Kelsey, through his superintendent, Dr. Clarke, has promoted that a pure blooded Holstein bull will be expressed from his farms at Lexington, Mass. as the head of a herd that he is going to have domiciled at Prosperity Farms within the next few months. This bull is said to be the best of its kind in the United States and to view it will alone be worth the admission fee.

By 1930, The Palm Beach County Fair had grown in size, scope and sophistication. The exposition that began its five day run from February 25th thru March 1st, seemed to have reached a zenith never quite realized before or scarcely since.

The show date followed the cataclysmic Stock Market Crash of 1929 by a scant six months. Perhaps fear and uncertainty concerning the foreboding future gave the whole affair an especially giddy air - in which it reveled for a few last glorious days.

On Tuesday, Feb. 25th, The Palm Beach Post reported the opening of The Fair with front page headlines and an account that can only be described as all-out, breathless enthusiasm:

“Flying banners, clicking turnstiles, blaring bands, flying hoofs of race horses, the song of the ballyhoo barker, the music of crowing roosters and the quacking of fancy geese will mingle today at the formal opening of the sixteenth annual be admitted free on the day named in their honor, Children’s Day. All county schools will be closed today.”

“From every section of the county have come the widest variety and the greatest number of exhibits ever gathered here for a fair. Every agriculture activity of the county will have representation, while home industries will occupy much space with their showings including those of the Southern Sugar Company and the Brown Farm at Shawono.”

“Two permanent exposition buildings and three big circus tents will house the exhibits. A program of horse races will run concurrent with the five days of the fair. There will be free vaudeville acts, the combined West Palm Beach and Lake Worth Harmonica Band and big brass band will furnish a daily musical program.”

“Among the free attractions are Joe Cramer’s table rocking act, Groth’s comedy revolving ladder performance; Pattison’s Funny Ford; Cramer’s jugglers and wire stunts; Mme. Marie’s dog and pony circus; Groth’s double trapeze and a clown bucking mule, an auto polo match.”

“Divisions are devoted to virtually every activity of the county from bees to cattle, from home garden to individual farm exhibits, from crazy quilts to a well balanced salon and from the smallest of industries to the expositions of large scales agriculture operations.”

“Officials of West Palm Beach and of other cities and towns in the county will be the guests of the management on different days and with the visit of Gov. Doyle Carleton and his staff on Friday the week will be rounded out on Saturday with special features now being arranged.”

“Those who care for dancing will find a dance floor in the automobile building with music provided by radios. In addition to the features of the fair proper, there will be a complete midway presentation of the Johnny Jones Expositions Shows.”

The Fair site, Belvedere Park was located two miles west of West Palm Beach on Belvedere Road - now the highly developed intersection of Congress Avenue at the north side of the Palm Beach Dog Track.

The crushing weight of the deepening depression and a few ill-timed hurricanes pushed the Palm Beach County Fair to the brink of extinction.

World War II turned Belvedere Park and surrounding acreage into Morrison Field, an important U.S. Army Base.

At the close of World War II, the pent-up demand for consumer goods brought about a period of great industrial expansion all over the country.

Palm Beach County wanted a piece of the action and set upon an ambitious effort to bring it about.

Ralph Blank, Jr.., a prominent West Palm Beach attorney and former Florida State Senator, commented on that period.

“In about 1944, the war was still on, my father Ralph Blank Sr., started the Palm Beach County Resources Board and was its first and longtime secretary and manager. It was in the nature of a county wide Chamber of Commerce with a broader scope of interest - promoting tourism, agriculture and industry.”

“At that time the Fair was sort of chugging along on one cylinder, financially and otherwise - it was touch and go. Dad and his Resources Development Board cranked it up and going again.”

Ralph Blank, Jr. recalls the days when the fair was held at John Prince Park. “It wasn’t elaborate, everything in tents, the exhibits weren’t worth writing home about. Our biggest industry was Glades Agriculture, which was far more diversified in those days. Included were vegetables, cattle, cloth fibers, and relatively little sugar cane, because of the U.S.. Sugar Quotes and Cuban imports.”

“The whole thing was pretty Mickey Mouse,” he added.

During the early fifties the fair bounced between the airport, John Prince Park and the Palm Beach Speedway.”

At first, on December 14, 1955 the Board of County Commissioners deed approximately 15 acres of land in John Prince Park as a permanent fairgrounds site. After two years at this site, misfortunes struck again and commissioners asked the Fair not to build and permanent structures on the land as it might be needed for a college.

As compensation, the Commissioner’s deeded to the new Palm Beach County Expositions, Inc. 105 acres adjoining the Palm Beach Speedway. This land became the home of the Fair and every fair has been held there since that time. In 1957 a $100,000 bond issue enabled the fair to purchase the Palm Beach Speedway and the adjoining land.

Off-again, on-again, and bounced all over Town, the Fair landed in a heap on a cow pasture, way out West on Southern Boulevard. Home at last.

Over the years the Fair had gone through a number of transformations, depending on the needs of the time. Now the good old gypsy, once a year tent show days were over. All of a sudden the Fair had to deal with property, deeds, chattels, assessments, titles, taxes, and capital improvements. It was a different, far more complicated situation.

Eliot Kleinberg took a look back at the history of the South Florida Fair in a 2002 Post Time column: "It later added 10 exhibit halls, the 40,000 square-foot Expo Hall, an adjacent 70,000 square-foot hall, Yesteryear Village, a paved midway and concourse areas. The Coral Sky – later Mars – Amphitheatre, capacity 20,000, opened in 1995. The fair’s budget has gone from about $50,000 in 1957 to about $8 million now."

As they have, since 1912, highly competent, public spirited individuals stepped forward and volunteered their time and energies to help guide the Fair over the new course, and into a more challenging future.

George Boutewell, an influential Palm Beach County dairyman, was President of the Fair’s Board of Directors. He prevailed upon Lamar Allen, then Director of the Palm Beach County Resources Board, to join the Fair as manager on a full time basis.

Fred Yount was a successful business man, who operated a large agriculture plantation in the Glades, and was a major exhibitor at the Fair. his enthusiasm, and suggestions got the better of him when other members of the Fair’s Board of Directors grabbed him and put him to work on the Fair’s pressing financial trade.

Ray Tylander, a successful building material dealer, came forward and offered his assistance, which was gratefully accepted.

Bud Freer was an executive with the Florida Power and Light. He organized Palm Beach County electrical distributors and appliance dealers to display and demonstrate their goods at the Fair. In doing so, he became vitally interested in the Fair and it’s future prospects.

Robert Foster was a young partner in the law firm of Caldwell, Pacet, Foster and Barrow. His firm handled the Fair’s legal needs, which were assigned to him. In the process of which, he was caught up in the Fair’s formidable mystique.

These men and others of their considerable stature, came upon the scene in the later days of the 1950’s; and have successfully guided the fair ever since.

During the Sixties, the Fair was caught-up in the race for space fever. Pratt Whitney, by far the largest employer in Palm Beach County, became a major exhibitor. Rocket engines, space enthusiastically received by throngs of fairgoers of all ages.

When this Country was going through vast social and political upheavals, during the late sixties and seventies, the Fair remained an island of stability. It experienced little of the anguish experienced by other institutions of a similar nature.

In 1974, the Ralph Kettler Horse Complex was dedicated. Kettler was the driving force behind the creation of the large horse facility and the horse shows.

The Fair’s vast Horse Complex, operated independently under the auspices of the Fair management and the board of directors. The Horse Complex conducted fifty or more horse shows a year, including the Florida Quarter Horse futurity, the Gold Coast Quarter Horse Circuit and the Palm Beach Benefit Hunter/Jumper Horse Show.

Because of his persistence and dedication, the Fairgrounds now had one of the finest facilities in the country, and those facilities were used year-round.

The Eighties saw the fair grow and expand in great leaps. It became a major regional attraction, setting a single day attendance record of 152,500 visitors during the 1986 Fair. It was ranked among the top ten-percent of the more than 3,200 organized fairs in the United States and Canada, according to “Amusement Business” magazine.

Today, the South Florida Fair and Palm Beach County Expositions, Inc. is a full time year round operation with a crowded calendar of events and expositions.

The South Florida Fair has grown-up and changed with the vast changes undergone by Palm Beach County and South Florida.

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