On October 21,1915 the Board of Trade, later to become the Chamber of Commerce, approved a project to hold a Manatee County Fair, just prior to the South Florida Fair and Gasparilla Carnival in Tampa. On February 17,1916 the organization of a Manatee County Fair Association was effected and the first Fair was held February 28, 1916. Total Premiums paid that year was $500.
Less than a month after the first Fair closed, the Board of Trade started planning for a municipal-owned park to be used for golf links, a baseball diamond, the County Fair and other field sports. The Adams’ pasture (part of the estate of the late Major A. J. Adams) on Ninth Street in Bradentown (later changed to Bradenton) comprised 69 acres and could be purchased for $14,000. Bradentown voters approved the plans in a special election in May.
By October workers began clearing land, and Fair dates of February 13-16, 1917, were announced. Contractor E. W. Stoltz, of Palmetto, was the successful bidder and soon began work on the main exhibit building — 40′ x 120′, with booths around the wall. The women’s exhibits were to be arranged in the Clubhouse planned for both Fair and golfing use. A 12-foot porch enclosed the building and a grandstand was constructed for viewers of ball games and Fair entertainment. These buildings were erected on the present McKechnie Field site where today Pittsburgh Pirates exhibition games are played.
In the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, sponsoring of the Fair in Bradenton stopped, but it wasn’t long before 35 Palmetto men signed application for a charter. It was in 1937 that they sought one for a “Manatee County Fair Association”. But the late Judge W. T. Harrison would not approve the application since the Bradenton group had held a charter by that name.
The Palmetto Civic leaders then sought a charter as the “Manatee River Fair Association, Inc.” It was granted and the “Manatee River Fair Association” was the official sponsor of the “Manatee County Fair”. For several reasons, the Fair was held in a corrugated metal building near the Palmetto Trailer Park. World War II was declared in 1941; exhibits were held in January 1942, but the Fair was discontinued during the war years, then resumed again in 1951.
At the war’s end it was learned that the trailer park needed to expand. There followed a property exchange between the City of Palmetto and Manatee County, with the latter getting the land on 17th Street where the present Agricultural Center covers a large area.
It was through the efforts of the later J. P. Harllee, Sr., Commission Chairman; and Ed Ayers, County Agent, that the first building was erected in 1951. It was named for Harllee, the second exhibit hall for Ayers.
In the years that followed, additional buildings have been erected which provide the setting for the big and successful fairs that are held the last full week of January each year. Crowds attending have grown steadily and average around 100,000 each year. In 1990 an attendance record of 116,565 was set.
Most recently, the Ayers Building and Bell Annex exhibit halls and Fair Office were torn down to make way for the construction of improved exhibit hall facilities in the future.