Q: When was the South Florida Fairgrounds built? Has it always been a fairgrounds? Was it ever a speedway?
A: Here’s the story, from fair records and Buck Christian, executive director since 1981:
The “Palm Beach County Fair” started in March 1912, a four-day event under a single tent on the grounds of the Palm Beach County Courthouse. The county, split from Dade only three years earlier, wanted a forum to show off its winter crops, livestock and booming real estate.
The town’s godfather, Henry Flagler, sweetened the pot by offering cash prizes for farmers and others who displayed their wares. The fair moved the following year to a site just to the north, near the railroad depot.
The Depression hit hard and the fair was reduced to a carnival midway from 1930 until 1937, then is believed to have shut down all together. A plan to revive it for early 1942 was quashed by the Pearl Harbor attack.
It finally reopened in 1946 at the National Guard Armory, then moved in early 1948 to Morrison Field, later Palm Beach International Airport, but was evicted again when the airport reactivated for the Korean conflict.
The fair incorporated in 1953, and from then to 1955, it set up in the parking lot of the Palm Beach Speedway, a 5,000-seat facility with a half-mile, high-banked track, near the site of the fair’s present location along Southern Boulevard and west of Florida’s Turnpike.
In 1956, the county deeded 18 acres at the present site of Palm Beach Community College’s main campus in Lake Worth, and after the fair was held there that year, the county took it back for the school and instead deeded 100 acres next to the speedway.
The 1957 fair was at John Prince Park. Later that year, the fair’s corporation bought the speedway property, about 35 acres. The fair opened on its new grounds Jan. 27, 1958, and was promptly attacked by a small tornado that blew down six tents but hurt no one. For its January 1960 event, it was renamed the South Florida Fair.
It later added 10 exhibit halls, the 40,000 square-foot Expo Hall, an adjacent 70,000 square-foot hall, Yesteryear Village, a paved midway and concourse areas. The Coral Sky – later Mars – Amphitheatre, capacity 20,000, opened in 1995. The fair’s budget has gone from about $50,000 in 1957 to about
$8 million now.
County Agent Marvin U. Mounts at the fair. Mounts was the agricultural agent for Palm Beach County from 1929 until the 1960s and Mounts Botanical Garden is named for him. He died in 1969. Click on the image to see more historic South Florida Fair photos.
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