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Kindle: Ruskin Seafood Festival showcases best of South Shore

Like thousands of other South Shore residents, I always look forward to the beginning of November. It’s an exciting time of the year for us because it brings with it the annual Ruskin Seafood Festival.

What began as a community party for Ruskin residents 25 years ago has grown into a regional festival attracting about 25,000 visitors. It’s the largest annual event in southern Hillsborough County, one that draws not only locals but also throngs of visitors.

Because I wasn’t living here in 1988 when the whole thing started, I did a little research to provide some background. I talked with folks who actually lived its history and learned some interesting tidbits.

Like this one: Designed to be a fundraiser for the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce, the event was originally supposed to be a boat show. But when that plan fell through organizers went back to Cargill, the original corporate sponsor, and requested the funding be used for a seafood festival. I got that jewel of information from Frances Hereford, who was Cargill’s community liaison at the time.

The festival’s first site was Ruskin’s Bahia Beach — now the home of Little Harbor — which was a popular gathering place for locals 2 1/2 decades ago. The event began small, with about 30 food, arts and crafts and business vendors, and an attendance of around 5,000 people.

Everyone I talked with described it as laid-back, almost party-like in atmosphere — an event where everyone knew everyone. It was a celebration of Ruskin, an annual reunion of sorts, for the people who lived here.

The festival used to be held in October but many complained the weather was still too hot, and organizers wanted to set a date that could accommodate the community’s winter visitors. So in 1994, the first weekend in November was selected as an official date, and it has been that way ever since. Admission was free back then; food and drink tickets were 50 cents each.

In 1996 after the Seminole Indian tribe purchased the Bahia Beach property and spent about $4 million in renovations to make it a resort, officials at the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce decided the festival would need more space and worked with Hillsborough County to move it to E.G. Simmons Park the following year.

Fast forward to 2013 …

This year’s Ruskin Seafood Festival will feature more than two dozen food vendors alone, with interesting names like Taste of Boston, Gypsy Fish, Hammerhead’s, Mullet Shack and Laughing Crab Catering. If you like seafood, there’s plenty of it — prepared pretty much every way known to man. And if you don’t, no worries, there’s plenty of traditional festival fare, as well.

Although it’s significantly larger than what it used to be, what I like about the seafood festival is that it still has a laid-back, almost homey atmosphere. There are now more than 100 commercial, nonprofit and arts and crafts vendors, including a boating and outdoor expo, but you won’t find a midway or carnival-style attractions. While it’s become more than just a party for Ruskin, the festival is still very much about families and community.

Children have plenty to do at this event. The Guppies R Guppies Kids Area is bigger than ever, with Silly Sam the Music Man, Jumbo the Magic Pirate, pony rides and a petting zoo, the Fritzi Brothers stage show and Home Depot’s children’s workshop. It also features a Euro-reverse bungee jump, bounce houses, a trackless train and all kinds of interactive activities.

For music lovers, Saturday’s live entertainment will include the Doby Elementary Little Kids Rock Band, Spy vs. Spy reggae band and Ladyhawke. On Sunday the headliner is local blues and rock band Kosmic Pearl.

Honestly, folks. If you’ve never been to the Ruskin Seafood Festival, grab the wife, the kids, your neighbor, your friends — even your dog — and come on down to see what South Shore’s all about. And for those of you who have been before, there’s always something new.

Like I said, I’m really looking forward to it. Hope to see you there.

Lois Kindle can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 731-8138.

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