SEBRING - When Harold Allbritton joined the Sebring Fire Department in 1976, his fire chief, Legare Smoak, gave him the option of joining the Sebring Firemen Inc., a nonprofit that raises money for school athletics.
Allbritton was all for it.
From then on, one of his responsibilities became to help out at the Highlands County Fair, which the Sebring Firemen Inc.'s affiliate, the Highlands County Fair Association, has organized for 77 years.
Now, more than a 100 volunteers help put together the nine-day annual event, but those days they didn't have that kind of manpower, Allbritton remembered.
"If you were not on duty and the fair was here, you were here," Allbritton said. "The place would be so packed with people (fairgoers) all the time."
Despite the passage of time, what longtime volunteers such as Allbritton and Richard McClain and newcomer Clinton Culverhouse have in common is a love of what the fair stands for and the tradition that has made it happen for more than seven decades.
"It's not about the rides; it's about the livestock show, the kids, the 4H and the FFA - that's what the fair is about," said McClain, who has been involved with the event for 30 years and even has a road that leads into the fairgrounds named after him.
Culverhouse, who joined the Sebring Firemen Inc. last year, was inspired by how hard old-timers such as Allbritton have worked to showcase youth skills and promote athletics, and wanted to be a part of the tradition.
The fair starts today and runs until Feb. 15.
More than 236 exhibitors will be showing 250 animals in the livestock show, which culminates with an auction Thursday for some animals; there will be three beauty pageants; several exhibits by local 4-H students; contests for cooking, photography, horticulture, fine arts, sewing; along with entertainment, food, music and carnival rides.
While Culverhouse attended the fair as a youth he never showed animals, something his children are changing - this year they are both showing rabbits.
The livestock show is run by a 17-member Junior Livestock Committee with seven alternates.
Most of them are not members of the Highlands County Fair Board but are appointed by the Highlands County Cattlemen's Association and approved by the Highlands County Fair Association.
The livestock committee members, along with 10 to 15 other volunteers, work long hours to make sure the livestock show goes off without a hitch.
Committee vice-president Chad McWaters is involved because he believes the experience of a livestock show teaches students valuable life lessons and to reward students who put in work raising and training the animals.
Plus, it is a natural for him to do so: McWaters showed cattle when he was growing up, his dad was an ag teacher and his kids all show livestock.
McClain said not only has the fair grown a lot, the fairgrounds have changed for the better.
New buildings have been constructed, lighting has improved, parking space has increased, there are asphalt walkways now and the outdated barns have been updated.
"It's improved a lot," he said.
Some highlights of the Highlands County Fair:
A new event this year will be The Bengal Tigers Encounter, a tiger show, which will occur most days.
A special event is a whip cracking exhibition by three brothers who won the event at the Polk County Fair. It will be held Thursday, Feb. 13, at Building No. 2 at 5 p.m.
The fair will feature the Jr. Miss Highlands County 2014 Beauty Pageant today; the Miss Highlands County 2014 Beauty Pageant Saturday; and the Little Miss Highlands County 2014 Beauty Pageant Monday. All three events will begin at 7 p.m.
Entertainment will include the Florida Bluegrass Express; Lloyd Maybre; the California Toe Jam Band; Cammie Lester, who won the Disney Idol competition last year; and the Avon Park High School Choir.
General admission is $8. Armbands, which provide admission to rides, cost $22.
Parking on fair property is $3 and the proceeds go to Sebring Baseball.
Gates open at 5 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Exhibit buildings will be open 5 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, 1 to 10 p.m. on Saturday and 1 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.