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Remembering the strange, sordid history of the Florida State Fair

A lot has changed since the fair debuted alongside Gasparilla in 1904.
An undated image of Florida State Fair attendees enjoying a roller coaster. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System]

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Floridians head to the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa to gorge themselves on fried concoctions and ride a Ferris wheel or two. But why is our official state fair located here? And what did it used to look like?

Here’s a look back at what has changed since the fair’s debut in 1904. One note: Some historic images that follow contain scenes that do not hold up to contemporary standards and could be considered offensive.

An undated photo shows acrobatics at the Florida State Fair. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System]

The fair’s origins trace back to the late 1890s, when railroad mogul Henry B. Plant hosted events to dazzle guests at his Tampa Bay Hotel (the minaret-studded building is now known as the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall.) The riverside hotel also boasted Plant Field, Tampa’s early sporting and event venue.

The first fair, then called the South Florida Fair, was held on Plant Field in the winter of 1904. Plant had died five years prior, and his hotel was in decline, said Susan Royal Jones, a researcher at the Florida State Fair.

“The city of Tampa actually bought the hotel and the grounds, and this was one of the ways they thought they would be able to get a return on the investment," Jones said.

Gasparilla debuted the same year, and the two events were held downtown in tandem for decades. The bundled festivities were designed to lure northern tourists to Florida and get attention from state officials.

The entrance to the Florida State Fair and Gasparilla Celebration in 1952. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1952)]

“It was always a means to bring down the governor or other officials from Tallahassee," said Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department.

Fair guests would often find horse races along with parades of elephants and other classic circus fanfare. The midways with dancers, amusement rides and games all trace back to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, Huse said.

“The midway is really what gave birth to the (fair) that we know today,” he said. “They share the DNA, the circus and the fair.”

A poultry judge gives a bird the once-over at the 1925 Florida State Fair. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1925)]

The Florida State Fair fit in with the running theme of circus culture in the area. The Ringling Brothers moved their winter quarters to Sarasota in the late 1920s, and many sideshow performers spent their winters in Gibsonton. Images from that era often show acts that “would not be considered politically correct in today’s world,” Jones said.

A 1926 photo shows crowds watching "The Royal European Midgets" at the Florida State Fair. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1926)]
Elephants parade through the 1938 Florida State Fair. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1938)]

“Not only was it the place to see two-headed animals, but it was a place to experience things you never had a chance to taste or smell," Huse said. “If you went to the fair in 1905, that might be the first time you tried Coca Cola or Italian sausage. If you lived in a rural area, it might be the first time you saw an electric light bulb.”

Back then, fairs offered a chance to see and taste modern parts of the world for the first time. Hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream all were considered novel. Other popular dishes included barbecue and fried fish (no deep-friend Oreos here).

Women served Reddi-wip whipped cream samples at Florida State Fair. [BURGERT BROTHERS | Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1950)]

In early fair years, other Florida counties showed off crops at the Florida State Fair, Jones said. But Tampa used it as an opportunity to get creative with its biggest industry: cigars.

Women pose on a cigar-covered tank created in 1939 for the Cigar Manufacturers Association. [Times archive (undated)]
Four women stand in front of an airplane made of cigars at the Florida State Fair in the early 1940s. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System]

By the 1950s, many of the attractions featured livestock and animals.

“The fair used to reflect the agricultural heritage of the area," Huse said. “That’s one of the things that has kind of fallen by the wayside over time. ... Not as many people are engaged with raising hogs.”

A man stands by some cows at the 1950 Florida State Fair Collection. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1950)]

The fair was held around Tampa Stadium in 1976 as builders readied a new destination for the festivities. In ’77, the fair moved to the Florida State Fairgrounds at Interstate 4 and U.S Highway 301 — a much larger swath of land than the original space at Plant Field.

Gasparilla is now a season that spans from January thorough the spring months, with the Gasparilla Pirate Invasion occurring in January. The Florida State Fair typically spans a few weeks in February.

The Dangler delighted fair attendees in 1928. [Burgert Brothers | Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System (1928)]