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HomeAt Home & BeyondA Dream and a Tent: Hernando County Fair Memories

A Dream and a Tent: Hernando County Fair Memories

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It all started with a dream and a tent at Emerson Field on March 24, 1950. Miss Mary Belle Rogers, general chairwoman of the Junior Service League, had an idea to start the first Hernando County Fair.
The two day event was started with donations from local businessmen and merchants. Some of these same businessmen were charmed into helping out further, into taking turns as ticket agents and parking attendants.

On April 6-7, 1951, there was a second Hernando County Fair. The two-day event really tied up traffic! It was said to be Brooksville’s worst traffic jam, as spectators clogged the roadways to get a glimpse of the activities. A kick-off parade went from downtown Brooksville to Emerson Field (just north of today’s Hernando High). The courthouse and many stores closed for the day and business owners were persuaded to participate and create fair exhibits and displays. Revenue from the fair went into a special fund earmarked for a future permanent location.

The fair took a brief hiatus in the early 1950s and returned in 1955 stronger than ever with six days of activities. That year is considered the true beginning of our county fair. Once again, there was a huge parade complete with marching bands, floats, fire trucks, horses and cowboys. As in previous years, it led the way from downtown Brooksville to Emerson Field.

Communities like Istachatta, Garden Grove, Lake Lindsey, Spring Lake, and Masaryktown were all represented at the fair. Ribbons were awarded for outstanding displays, from 1st to 5th place. Meanwhile, schools showed off their very best. They set up artwork, crafts, essays, and examples of fine penmanship.

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Hernando State Bank had a big exhibit in 1955 to coincide with its 50th banking year. There were also displays from the Boy Scouts, the Camera Club, the Forest Service, and others like the New Farmers and New Homemakers. Rounding out the fair were agriculture, horticulture, livestock and poultry exhibits, plus the ever-popular midway rides.

The 1956 Hernando County Fair had a kick-off parade and called opening day “Tourist Day.” The entertainment that night was a real homespun treat! For the price of admission, one could enjoy hog calling, husband calling, turkey calling, and horn blowing!

The Tampa Tribune often published a daily fair guide. For many years (until the mid-to-late 1960s), there were racial attendance guidelines. African American children and their families had separate fair admission days from white children.

The November 6-9, 1957, Hernando County Fair moved to new facilities on Hwy. 41. A large exhibition hall was opened that year with a dedication ceremony. Following the kick-off parade, attendees to the fair could see exhibits or perhaps take in horse racing on a straight-away track. They could listen to a band concert, or eat a barbecue dinner. Other popular events of the week were the baby show, the beauty pageant, and the marksmanship and tractor driving contests.

The 1958 Hernando County Fair was busier than ever. They had so many exhibits that space was overflowing in the main building. Exhibitors had to be put in tents meant for new automobiles and boats. Masaryktown, known as “Florida’s Egg Basket,” had farm-fresh eggs along with finely embroidered linens. Another popular display was a collection of beautiful orchids directly from Weeki Wachee Springs.

The Hernando County Fairs of the 1960s are the ones I remember fondly as a kid. They’re simpler times and pleasures. It was a special treat to go to the fair and get cotton candy, ride some rides, and meet up with friends. I recall sitting in the top car on the Ferris wheel and looking down at all the lights below. I tried my luck on the midway and won my share of stuffed animals or took home a goldfish in a bag. And I received prize ribbons for entering my rabbits and for making an apron in 4-H.

The Hernando County Fair stayed in November in the early 1960s, then moved to February and March by the end of the decade. In 1965 (at the 10th annual fair), the popular Ernie Lee Show was broadcast from the Hernando County Fair and his show was free to the public. Ernie Lee was a country singer with a smooth voice and homespun charm. He had a popular 30-minute morning show called “Good Day” on television on Channel 13. My mom never missed it and got up early just to see him sing and tell stories.

I also have Hernando County Fair memories from my time with the Tampa Tribune as a district supervisor. In the mid-1980s, the Tribune had a booth at the county fair—and was just one of many merchants. Each day, we had to make sure stacks of newspapers and boxes of promotional items got to the booth on time. My partner, Norm Sarne, was handy to have around with his pickup truck and delivery dolly. He helped move our newspaper bundles and goodies.

It was an era of big circulation budgets. I recall we gave away cases of books, coffee cups, pens, keychains, clocks, small radios, T-shirts and more at the fair. Each Tribune employee took a shift at the booth. It was fun to give away items and listen to our customers.
Those were the days!

I remember we had one newspaper carrier, Wilbur Ludwig, who would take newspapers on foot to the various carnival workers. Those men stayed on site and lived in tents or campers at the back of the fairground property. They made things ready for each new day. We gave them a free Tampa Tribune to read with their morning coffee or one to take with them at break time.

So, now the Hernando County Fair is coming round again on April 5-13, 2024, at the fairgrounds on Hwy. 41. Times change but the fair still offers a great opportunity to learn a bit more about our county and its people. And it’s come a long way from a tent and a dream!

Digitally created artwork of a carnival or state fair from the 1960s. Rides, shows, shops, etc
Credit: Amith/ Adobe Stock

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