29 photographs of the Florida State Fair from the early 1970s

The black and white photographs include exhibition tents that featured human oddities.
A human oddities exhibition tent at the Florida State Fair during the early 1970s.
Published April 27, 2021|Updated April 27, 2021

TAMPA — During the early 1970s, the Florida State Fair was held on the University of Tampa’s campus, one of its most famous foods was a 12-inch hotdog and highlights of the annual event were those billed as “Human Oddities” such as the “Swamp Child” and the “Bearded Lady.”

“It was a much different time,” said Josie Ritter, 71 and a photographer now residing in Vermont. “Some of what I saw at the fair was fascinating. Some was painful.”

Related: Florida State fair continues through Sunday

It was sometime between 1971 and 1974, Ritter said, that she took her camera from her Hyde Park apartment to the fairgrounds to document one of the fair’s final runs in downtown Tampa.

Ritter emailed 29 digital prints of those black and white photographs to the Tampa Bay Times to be shared with readers.

The photographs include images of the fair employees known as “carnies,” rides like the Toboggan roller coaster that sent two people at a time spiraling down a narrow track wrapped around a tower, and the outside of exhibition tents featuring the oddities.

“It has been a great pleasure scanning these old 8x10s to share,” Ritter said. “They each stir vivid moments I am grateful to have in my memory bank.”

Laura Sedlmayr said the photographs nearly brought her to tears of joy.

The 63-year-old Tampa resident is the granddaughter of Carl John Sedlmayr, founder of the Tampa-based traveling carnival company Royal American Shows. Its self-billed world’s largest midway was a featured attraction at the state fair in the 1970s.

The Times shared the photographs with Sedlmayr, asking if she remembered anyone in them.

“I recall faces,” she said. “The names escape me. We’d have 200 to 300 people working for us at any given time and they were always coming and going.”

But she could recall some specifics.

A Royal American Shows carnival wagon featuring a hobo clown mural is among Ritter’s photos. Sedlmayr said that artwork was courtesy of Bobby Wicks, a Coney Island tattoo artist who later toured with Royal American Shows as their official banner painter.

The hotdogs, she said, were known as Long Longs “because if we called them footlongs and one was 11 inches, someone might sue.”

And Sedlmayr is certain the photographed oddity tents were not part of Royal American Shows.

“One is for a two-headed baby,” she said. “We didn’t do anything like that. That was part of another company that rented space at the fair. We found stuff like that in poor taste.”

Ritter agreed with that assessment. That is why her photographs only feature signs promoting the human oddities.

“I didn’t like going inside to see the shows,” Ritter said. “It felt wrong.”

Josie Ritter in her Tampa apartment in the early 1970s.
Josie Ritter in her Tampa apartment in the early 1970s. [ Courtesy of Josie Ritter ]
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Ritter, a native of Miami who lived in downtown Tampa in the early 1970s, said she has “been fascinated by gypsies my whole life. I think it takes incredible courage to live by your own rules.”

Ritter lived three blocks from the downtown fairgrounds. She kept the windows open because the second floor apartment did not have air conditioning.

“The soundtrack of the rides, the barkers and the crowds rang in through all the open windows almost all night long,” Ritter said. “It fueled my fantasies.”

Ritter left Tampa in 1974. Three years later, the fair moved to its current location at the Florida State Fairgrounds at 4800 US Hwy. 301 North.

The oddities were eventually cancelled.

Royal American Shows shuttered in the mid-1980s, Sedlmayr said.

“Everything changes,” Sedlmayr said. “The whole city of Tampa has changed. Life goes on. But it is nice to have memories.”