Chickee Talk… It’s Festival Time!
For those who grew up here in Naples, the New Year was synonymous with heavier traffic, grumpy adults and the anticipation of two big outdoor events… the Collier County Fair and the Everglades Seafood Festival. We focused on the latter two because as a child, we didn’t drive and for the most part we assumed that if it wasn’t for the heavy traffic and “snowbirds” everywhere, it was probably us kids who made adults grumpy! So what better way to occupy our minds than candy apples, cotton candy, fair food and rides… lots and lots of rides.
The Collier County Fair used to be held in January at the old Swamp Buggy Grounds on Radio Road. Every time I go to Peppers on Corporate Square Blvd, I reminisce about turning into the fairgrounds, eyes wide open staring at the ferris wheel or checking out any new rides that could shake my stomach into convulsions. My family had a chickee at the Swamp Buggy Grounds and we would set up our arts, crafts and fry bread.
Most of our patrons were locals who looked forward to my Grandma and Aunt Tahama’s fry bread just like I looked forward to “Art’s Famous Elephant Ears.” How I remember the elephant ear vendor’s name is a miracle but most would consider him our competition because an elephant ear is really just fry bread with butter and cinnamon sugar… but Art was my dad’s buddy and we would trade our bread and its fillings for his elephant ears.
The Everglades Seafood Festival was held every February and it held its own level of anticipation throughout the years. The first festival was held in 1970 to raise money to build a playground at the park across the street from city hall. The first year I remember setting up to sell arts and crafts and our famous fry bread had to have been in 1973 or 1974 because they already had a playground. How do I remember the playground? It’s easy…my first year at the Seafood Festival, our booth was next to the merry go round. I had made some new friends and we were all playing on the merry go round when all of a sudden my stomach gave out… If it weren’t for jumping off the merry go round and making it a few feet away before it gave way, I may have lost those friends on the same day I made them. Of course that is a memory that first comes to mind whenever I pass the circle in Everglades City… even today!
I remember the Everglades mornings in February were always cold and the afternoons seemed to heat up enough for people to let loose and have fun. Again, for us locals, the Seafood Festival was incredibly entertaining. The 1970’s and 80’s, the festival would also be the place for ongoing rivalries and beef to be started or settled. After people collected about 10-12 beer mugs around their belts, the fights would start and the sheriff deputies would start loading the jail vans with those who got out of control. As a teenager, I would ask to go walk around with my friends and take a break from working the booth, and I would be told no because they knew I only wanted to go watch the guys fighting over by the circle and the beer tents. The history of Everglades City and its smuggling era is almost an attraction thirty years later, but the late 1980’s and 1990’s were a bit of a sad time because some of my friends and their parents were facing serious prison time.
Regardless of their challenges during that era, the show went on and the Seafood Festival gave us locals a feeling that everything would be okay. It also served as a reminder – growing up and living in Collier County, generation after generation, regardless of race, sex, religion or income level, made us all part of a shared culture that keeps this community alive.
Even though the Collier County Fair is no longer in January and we no longer have a booth at the Everglades Seafood Festival, I still have that feeling of anticipation for festival time! Art is no longer alive, but I can still get an elephant ear at the fair and I can still see friends at the Everglades Seafood Festival. Both of these festivals are deeply rooted in Collier County’s history and I always tell those who are new to Naples that if you really want to make Naples your home, you need to get to know the locals. Why not start with food, fun and a little local camaraderie
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