Over the midway drift wafts of kettle corn, funnel cake, sausage and peppers; riders’ shrieks; the clanging hurdy-gurdy of games and shows and colorful flashes of neon.
Don’t tell us the lights are shining any place but there.
The 31st Charlotte County Fair opens Jan. 31, and runs through Feb. 9, at Charlotte County Fairgrounds, 2333 El Jobean Road, Port Charlotte.
Wear the loose pants. You’ll spend a month’s worth of diet cheat days there and won’t leave the midway the way you went in. Everyone comes out two sizes bigger, wearing face paint, henna tattoos, a funny hat and a grin.
It’s an outdoor funhouse full of trailers, flags and lights strung along the fairgrounds’ oak-lined paths, with rides and free shows all the time, fair food, prize livestock and crafts, plants, food and artwork, all competing for ribbons.
“Usually there’s a little bit of breathing room, but not this year,” said fair general manager Kam Mahshie.
“We started it as a fundraiser, back when there was no county fair in Charlotte. The last fair closed down in the 1940s. But Charlotte County started growing, and there was a large agricultural program at the high school. We’ve grown and gotten more successful every year.”
“There’s a big difference between having a carnival in a field and holding an agricultural fair,” added his brother John, the fair treasurer. “The Charlotte County Fair gets its charter from the State of Florida, so it must be agricultural or there is no fair.”
Fair secretary Jackie Andrews, a longtime 4-H leader, reported that, this year, nearly 300 rabbits, hogs, poultry, lambs, steers and goats are being shown by 50% more 4-H and FFA exhibitors than last year.
“Younger kids show rabbits and chickens, and sell them as pets or laying hens. Hogs, steers and lambs are entered as market animals,” she said. “The kids all know from the beginning that their animals are going to be sold Friday night for slaughter. They keep 100% of the proceeds, which helps offset the expense of raising the animals.”
“Our livestock auction does very well,” said Kam. “And it’s a learning experience for the kids.”
In back of the animal barns, the big, white Arts & Crafts and Plants Building displays the quieter side of agricultural fairs — a community celebration of things people have made.
If you make anything at all, in fact, there’s a category that might award you a ribbon for it.
Nearly 40 handcrafts and art categories cover quilts, walking sticks, fairy gardens and origami, as well as painting and photography. Living things in the plant division include bonsai, ferns, and harvested fruits from nuts to pumpkins.
Representing fair food’s home-grown side are canned fruit, honey, preserves, cakes, bread, candy, cookies and lattice-topped pies. This year, there are also categories for things you really shouldn’t eat: faux cake decorating and recycled art made of everything from Brillo pads to used books.
“Something that always seems to go up is the number of student art exhibits,” said John Mahshie. “Charlotte County’s growing, and there are more students.”
Arts, crafts and plants coordinator Jim Marshall reported that there will be an area this year for home-schooled students’ art, as well as for more art than ever from Charlotte, Port Charlotte and Lemon Bay high schools, each eligible for a $1,000 scholarship from the fair association.
Looking forward to the fair’s fun side, Mahshie said, “We never really know what we’re going to get for the ride midway. For example, last year we didn’t have the big gondola, but we got a double Ferris wheel instead. I always go out there to see, because I love rides. I can’t ride ‘em anymore; I get dizzy. But I think it’s really important for kids to have fun rides.”
And that’s not all. This year, the fair’s got an entire circus. Multiple 45-minute free daily shows spotlight the Amazing Anastasini Circus, an eighth-generation family circus with jaw-dropping aerial, juggling, balance and clown acts.
Rick Martin and his Tricky Dogs Show are fair favorites every year, bringing back the variety-show heyday of the small-dog act. Between free daily performances, Martin and his six sidekicks ride around the midway in a little wood-paneled red jalopy.
“We like the Charlotte County Fair,” they said. “There are lots of trees.”