Think back to when your parents took you to the local county fair. Remember the smell of popcorn, peanuts and cotton candy, the colorful lights, and the shrieks and laughter of those enjoying the amusement rides. There were animal exhibits and booths selling different types of food, crafts and other items. There was usually a popular singer or recording group playing on a stage. It was always a fun time for the entire family.
The Okaloosa Industrial Fair made its debut over 45 years ago on Okaloosa Island, with circus tents and commercial booths with local businesses selling their wares. In 1967, this fair became known as the Fort Walton Beach Shrine Fair and secured its 501(c)(3) to become a nonprofit organization. In May 1971, Fort Walton Beach City Councilman C.H. ”Bull” Rigdon and a group of men bought the rights to the Shrine Fair and moved it away from Okaloosa Island.
With the help of Congressman Bob Sikes and Secretary of the Air Force Lewis Turner, Rigdon was able to secure 42 acres of land for a county fair. Part of the land was to be used for the fairgrounds, part for a vocational school, and part for a fire station. The name of the road that ran parallel to the properties was then changed to Lewis Turner Boulevard.
“My Dad saw that the community needed a fair. The state only allowed one fair per county,” says Rigdon’s son Charles. At the time, “Bull” was a deputy chief of engineering at Eglin Air Force Base. He had been born in Walton County in 1929. His father was a bridge builder, and the family moved 29 times.
“He really didn’t have any hobbies, so he got involved in the community,” says Charles. Rigdon was first elected to the Fort Walton Beach City Council in 1964 and remained on the council through 1981. He was reelected to the council again in 1985. His nickname came from his grandfather due to Rigdon’s hardheadedness.
When the fair was moved to the land on Lewis Turner, it became the Okaloosa County Fair. When “Bull” retired from Eglin in 1988, he decided to become a full-time fair executive. This required training and classes. He was elected president of the Florida Federation of Fairs twice. In the 1990s, he was named Fairman of the Year. “Bull” was also responsible for pushing through a lot of legislation on fairs in the Florida State Legislature.
In September 2009, the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds was renamed the C.H. “Bull” Rigdon Fairgrounds and Recreation Complex. In a City of Fort Walton Beach press release announcing the name change, “Bull” noted what an honor it was for him and his family. “It’s a good thing for the citizens and the community. It gives people a place to have events where they otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” he said at the time.
Rigdon passed away in December 2014. “This will be the third fair without him,” says Charles. “When I was young, Dad always made sure I had a job at the fair every year like sweeping up. I do the same thing with my son Blake. When my daughter Lauren was in elementary school, my dad would invite her class out to the fairgrounds.”
Charles Rigdon is now the CEO and Chairman of the Northwest Florida Fair. The fairgrounds today boasts 45,000 square feet of rentable space, 36,000 square feet of controlled exhibit and meeting spaces, and banquet space for 1,000 attendees. There are a variety of events that take place at the fairgrounds, including dog shows, gun shows, roller derby and military appreciation days.
There is also a “Yesteryear” museum on the property with artifacts of earlier times in the area. The fairgrounds have served as a location for Emergency Services, Gulf Power and Feed America after natural disasters. The city of Fort Walton Beach owns the property, and the Fair Association owns the building.
“We have a great group of board members,” says Charles. “We work with a family-owned amusement company who are hard-working people. All rides are inspected by the state of Florida. We see a lot of the same people out here every year.”
The 2017 Northwest Florida Fair takes place Sept. 26-30. The fairgrounds are located at 1958 Lewis Turner Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach. For more information, visit NWFFair.com or call 850-862-0211.
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