The Tampa Bay Hotel has a history of attracting large-scale events and prominent people to its ideal location near the bay. The leadership at work when the Spanish-American War came to Florida around 1898 were eager to set the Hotel up as the home base for soldiers waiting for the call to Cuba. Again in 1904, management sought business of another kind: that of the South Florida Fair.
The manager of the Tampa Bay Hotel at that time was T.J. Laud-Brown, and he managed to convince Tampa founders and the local rail line that the Hotel was the ideal location for the new South Florida Fair. Henry B. Plant himself had hosted earlier fairs in Tampa to attract visitors to the Hotel, but these decreased in popularity after his death. Brown was successful in re-invigorating fair life on Hotel grounds, and soon a 27-acre plot adjacent to the Tampa Bay Hotel became the home of the first ever South Florida Fair. The celebration was held in just one building, and had only simple attractions compared to the lights and sounds of its modern iteration.
It soon expanded in popularity and was renamed the Florida State Mid-Winter Festival. Fair-goers would come from far and wide to experience the growing attractions, and to present their crafts and skills for prizes. The fair assumed its final name change in 1915, when the multi-week-long event was officially recognized by the State of Florida. This new name was the “Florida State Fair”, a moniker that exists to present day.
The Florida State Fair took on some additional changes in 1975 and 1977, when Tampa’s celebrations were designated as the official Florida State Fair and when the Fair was moved to its current location, respectively. The current fairgrounds are more than 12 times the size of the original acreage on which the South Florida Fair sat, and are home to cattle grounds and rotating exhibits and shows.
The fairgrounds also host Cracker Country year-round, a settlement of historic Florida homes and buildings taken from across the state and relocated in East Tampa for public viewing and educational trips. The Florida State Fair coincided with the Gasparilla Festival for many years in the mid-to-late 20th century. The fair was also widely known for its competitions between livestock owners, eager to show off their pigs and cattle for a chance at one of the fair’s grand prizes. Prized pigs, strange sights like fire-eating and sword-swallowing, and crowned fair royalty roaming the grounds were all common sights. Also frequent were performances by national stars like Reba McEntire and visits from dignitaries like Governor LeRoy Collins, who would later go on to establish the University of South Florida.
That Fair which grew from a small 27-acreage and sat directly next to the Tampa Bay Hotel at the urging of the day’s management grew into today’s major state attraction. The Florida State Fair Association accounts for about 500,000 guests per year, and still recalls traditions of a day long past, complete with an agricultural focus and fascinating fair delicacies like bacon ice cream and “Redneck burgers”.