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Exploring Florida county fairs

Some assignments are more fun than others. Over the last year, I drove thousands of miles exploring county fairs across Florida.

Let me back up. Our special projects team wanted to take a look at county fair culture across the state. As we talked it through, things fell into their natural places. The biggest fair. The oldest fair. The biggest midway. You get the picture. Each fair I visited had a unique focus.

The first on my long list was the Volusia County Fair. The fair is known for having a high concentration of entertainment and sideshows. I got there early so I could try and meet the entertainers before they went on.

Some of the first people I met were the Hansen family. The mom, dad and three daughters travel the country performing their acrobatic routine. They let me backstage as they warmed up. What caught my eye the most were the details that showed that this way of life was all these girls knew. This was home for them.

Ella Hansen, 7, of Sarasota, watches as her father, Shane, warms up next to their camper before a performance Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

Madison Hansen, 11, practices her hula hoop routine before a performance Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

Ella Hansen, 7, of Sarasota, colors beside her family’s camper minutes before a performance Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

Madison Hansen, 11, of Sarasota, puts on makeup before a performance Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

Madison Hansen, 11, performs her hula hoop routine Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

Madison Hansen, 11, performs on a suspended ring Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

Shane Hansen spins a hula hoop around his body as he flips on a trampoline Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. The family of five performs as Hansen’s Spectacular Acrobatic Sensations. ©2017

I also met a husband and wife magic duo. They let me in their trailer as they prepared for their show.

Jef Eaton, of Orlando, packs up a box of his magic tricks in the bedroom of his camper Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, before a performance at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. Eaton and his wife, Jill, go by the name Kandu Magic as they travel the country performing magic for children. ©2017

Jef Eaton and his wife, Jill, perform as Kandu Magic on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. ©2017

I had to keep in mind that this fair and the entertainers were only a portion of the project. While I could have shot entertainer after entertainer, I tried to spend more time with a more focused selection. The last person I spent time with was a man who had trained monkeys.

Tiko, a 7-year-old capuchin monkey, takes a dollar from a fairgoer Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. ©2017

Jesse “Monkeyman” Moore, of Ohio, kisses his 7-year-old capuchin monkey, Tiko, on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, at the Volusia County Fair in Deland. Moore performs around the country as an organ grinder. ©2017

After the Volusia County Fair in Nov. 2017, I had some downtime. Most of the other fairs we were covering weren’t until March and April. In between, I followed a local girl who was raising a steer for the livestock show and sale at the Sumter County Fair.

The Villages High School senior Amber Barnes leads her steer from its enclosure to a trailer Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, to weigh it at her grandfathers in Lake Panasoffkee. ©2018

The Villages High School senior Amber Barnes leads her steer from its enclosure to a trailer Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, to weigh it at her grandfathers in Lake Panasoffkee. ©2018

The Villages High School senior Amber Barnes hand writes the last of ten letters Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at her home in Lake Panasoffkee. The letters will be sent out to invite potential buyers to the Sumter County Fair steer sale. ©2018

William Cone, of Greenville, clips the hair off the head of Amber Barnes’ steer Sunday, Feb 18, 2018, at her home in Lake Panasoffkee. Cone said the close trim on the face gives the steer a more youthful appearance which is attractive to buyers. ©2018

Amber Barnes’ steer looks out from a trailer Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, as it is taken to be weighed in Lake Panasoffkee. Barnes said the short trailer ride helps get the steer used to travel so it doesn’t get stressed and lose weight on the way to the fair. ©2018

Amber Barnes cleans her steer’s stall Thursday, March 8, 2018, before the market steer show at the Sumter County Fair in Bushnell. ©2018

Lesley Reddish, left, and Amber Barnes hang out in the livestock barn with the steers Thursday, March 8, 2018, before the market steer show at the Sumter County Fair in Bushnell. ©2018

Competitors stand with their steers in the arena Thursday, March 8, 2018, during the market steer show at the Sumter County Fair in Bushnell. ©2018

Amber Barnes waits to enter the arena with her steer Saturday, March 10, 2018, during the livestock sale at the Sumter County Fair. ©2018

Amber Barnes smiles as the crowd bids up the price on her steer Saturday, March 10, 2018, during the livestock sale at the Sumter County Fair. ©2018

This is when fair season really started to kick into high gear. It seemed like I was constantly on the road over the next few weeks. The next stop was Orlando for the Central Florida Fair where I focused on the midway.

Fairgoers walk past the Mardi Gras attraction as they move down the midway Thursday, March 15, 2018, during the Central Florida Fair in Orlando. ©2018

Gerald Pride, of Orlando, swings the hammer while playing the high striker game Thursday, March 15, 2018, during the Central Florida Fair in Orlando. ©2018

Kristina Maldonado-Castillo, 9, screams while riding Street Fighter with her brother, Luis Enrique Maldonado-Castillo, 18, on Thursday, March 15, 2018, during the Central Florida Fair in Orlando. ©2018

Rachel Fuentes, 27, pushes away the water gun of her boyfriend, Andrew Heller, 28, on Thursday, March 15, 2018, during the Central Florida Fair in Orlando. ©2018

From there, I hit the road down to Miami and then Naples. Miami has the largest fair in the state. In fact it’s larger than the state fair. It was also the only fair that mandated that we have an escort from someone on the fair staff. The crowds were pretty thin until later in the evening at which point they kicked us out. They didn’t want to dedicate any more resources to us and apparently they didn’t trust us to wander the fairgrounds in a responsible manner. It’s unfortunate as the photos don’t reflect the massive size without the crowds.

Karen and Michael Barnard, of Sylvester, Ga., talk about their 21 years of working as clowns at the fair Saturday, March 17, 2018, during the Miami-Dade Youth Fair. The couple go by Katie and Tadpole. ©2018

People take in the view while on the Sky Ride on Saturday, March 17, 2018, during the Miami-Dade Youth Fair. ©2018

A crowd watches as pigs race by Saturday, March 17, 2018, during the Miami-Dade Youth Fair. ©2018

Naples was a whole different story. Our focus at the Collier County Fair was the demolition derby. They gave me full access, including offering to let me ride in one of the cars. I declined as there were no safety devices for a passenger. I did however mount a GoPro in one of the cars to get the view from the inside.

Rodney Batcher, of Naples, races his car past the grandstands Sunday, March 18, 2018, at the Collier County Fair in Naples. Batcher’s car started life as a 1996 Cadillac DeVille. ©2018

Rodney Batcher, left, of Naples, slams in to Cecil Burke, of Naples, on Sunday, March 18, 2018, during the demolition derby at the Collier County Fair in Naples. ©2018

Lonnie Gibson, of Naples, waves the checkered flag to signal Cecil Burke as the winner of the second 15-lap enduro race Sunday, March 18, 2018, during the demolition derby at the Collier County Fair in Naples. ©2018

Cecil Burke, of Naples, gestures to the crowd after having the last running car Sunday, March 18, 2018, during the demolition derby at the Collier County Fair in Naples. ©2018

Next I was off to the Suwannee County Fair in Live Oak. The fair is the oldest in the state. One of the fair’s traditions is to hold a corn boil. That was my focus during my visit.

Crates of corn sit at the corn boil booth Thursday, March 22, 2018, during the Suwannee County Fair in Live Oak. Fair board member Russ Emmons said they go through 56 crates of corn and each crate has 42 ears. ©2018

Russ Emmons, of Live Oak, shucks corn Thursday, March 22, 2018, before the gates opened at the Suwannee County Fair in Live Oak. ©2018

Russ Emmons, of Live Oak, lifts a basket of boiled corn out of the kettle Thursday, March 22, 2018, during the Suwannee County Fair in Live Oak. ©2018

Salina Ely, 18, looks over at her boyfriend, Aaron Skaates, while eating corn Thursday, March 22, 2018, during the Suwannee County Fair in Live Oak. Skaates has been coming to the fair for the corn for eight years. ©2018

Next I was off to the Clay County Fair to cover their pageant. My photo editor worked with me in Rockford where I covered countless pageants. She thought I had a knack for getting great reaction and emotion from the events. That was one of the reasons I was put on this project in the first place. This pageant was smaller than I was used to and lacked big reactions, but it was still fun to cover. I made sure to get there early so I could meet up with some of the contestants as they got ready for the event.

Kirby Keller places fake eyelashes on Hannah Lee Adams at First Baptist Church of Keystone Heights on Saturday, March 31, 2018, before the Miss Clay County Fair Scholarship Pageant at the Keystone Heights Woman’s Club. ©2018

Cara Toney practices her commercial for the fair after getting her hair and makeup done at First Baptist Church of Keystone Heights on Saturday, March 31, 2018, before the Miss Clay County Fair Scholarship Pageant at the Keystone Heights Woman’s Club. ©2018

Ashley Chesser, left, of Fleming Island, works on Savannah Olson’s hair as Eden Carrier, of Green Cove Spring, works on her makeup at First Baptist Church of Keystone Heights on Saturday, March 31, 2018, before the Miss Clay County Fair Scholarship Pageant at the Keystone Heights Woman’s Club. ©2018

Cara Toney, left, and Hannah Lee Adams, carry their outfits in to the Keystone Heights Woman’s Club on Saturday, March 31, 2018, before the Miss Clay County Fair Scholarship Pageant. ©2018

Emcee Jon Vedas reacts after Kristianna Loggins answered her on-stage question Saturday, March 31, 2018, during the Miss Clay County Fair Scholarship Pageant at the Keystone Heights Woman’s Club. Loggins was asked what was her favorite word and responded with her name. ©2018

Hannah Lee Adams reacts after being named 2018 Teen Miss Clay County Fair on Saturday, March 31, 2018, during the Miss Clay County Fair Scholarship Pageant at the Keystone Heights Woman’s Club. ©2018

My last fair was a local one. The Lake County Fair. And this one was our filler fair. I had no particular focus. I was just shooting a little bit of everything.

People line up for tickets Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the Lake County Fair in Eustis. ©2018

Ryleigh Cannon, top, 12, of Umatilla, and Keiradyn Durden, 11, of Eustis, relax on their pigs before the sale Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the Lake County Fair in Eustis. ©2018

Caitlyn Dunlop, 15, of Umatilla, and Isaac Johnson, 22, of Mount Dora, hold hands while riding the Wave Swinger on Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the Lake County Fair in Eustis. ©2018

Sierra Causey, 10, of Altoona, uses a hand pump sprayer to give her pig, Squirt, water Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the Lake County Fair in Eustis. ©2018

Kids walk across the swaying bridge Saturday, April 14, 2018, at the Lake County Fair in Eustis. ©2018

The project was many months in the making. It was rewarding to see it publish in October as fair season was starting back up.

There are many photos that ended up on the cutting room floor. If you’re interested in seeing more of them, there are two galleries on The Villages Daily Sun’s website. One gallery is for most of the fairs. The second is specifically for the story of Amber Barnes raising her steer.

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