The king and queen of Hoggetown lead a royal procession through the fair. / Photo by PRISTINE THAI
GAINESVILLE, Fla. ‒ Charismatic caravans, custom-made corsets and common camaraderie brought thousands to the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire on its opening day Saturday.
The fair’s 37th iteration played out at Depot Park in downtown Gainesville, welcoming a horde of guests for the first half of its weekend-long festivities. It also ran Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with armored combatants, folk performers and magical comedians entertaining the crowds.
This year’s fair, dubbed “Hoggetowne Goes Downtown,” is the third to be held in-person after the revelry went remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also the third to be held after the fair’s long-standing home became unavailable for use.
“The pandemic hit at the same time that we started having to look for new venues,” said Shawn Bauldree, a teacher at O2B Kids who has performed annually at the fair since its inception. “It was just devastating.”
For decades, the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire was held at the old Alachua County Fairgrounds, near the Gainesville Regional Airport.
“It felt like you were in a forest,” Sarah VanSchoick said of the traditional location. VanSchoick works in government contracting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and she has attended the fair every year since 2001. “It was a cozy atmosphere, and it really felt like a little village there.”
But after the old fairgrounds were leased to the U.S. Army Reserve in 2020, the fair’s organizers have struggled to find a new venue for an event that typically spanned 100 acres.
The past two years, the fair was located at a field on Southwest Archer Road near the Haile Plantation community. Bauldree recalled the hourlong traffic jam that dampened festivities and frustrated patrons.
“I had people come up and yell at me for the traffic problems at the new venue,” she said. “It broke our hearts.”
Bauldree said that a suitable venue would be at least 90 acres with good road access. After their primary and backup location plans went awry this year, the fair’s organizers settled for Depot Park, which is only 32 acres.
“We’re coming back on borrowed land,” Bauldree said, “and it’s not ideal. I know Gainesvillians are worried about it not being as good as before.”
However, frequent fairgoers say they aren’t fazed by the location, intending to make the most out of the event no matter the circumstances.
“I know traffic is going to be congested, and I know people are complaining about it,” said Dawn Brower, a business owner who has gone to the fair since its first year. “But in my opinion, if you’re going to complain about it, just stay home and let other people enjoy it.
“I’m happy that the organizers are doing it for the community. We’re going to be there, we’re going to be happy, and we’re going to enjoy whatever it is they have to offer.”
VanSchoick said that she is optimistic about the fair’s proximity to downtown Gainesville, and she thinks it will be a much better location than last year’s.
“Change can be hard,” she said, “but I’m embracing the unique aspect of it. Most fairs are held in a pretty isolated environment. I think there’s a lot of opportunity with Hoggetowne being held so close to downtown, with the breweries and other local businesses participating.”
Because this year’s fair lasts for only one weekend instead of the typical three, admission is free, drawing in new attendees. UF freshman student Evangeline Limber said this greatly influenced her decision to go for the first time.
“I’m the stereotypical broke college student,” she said, “so it was great for it to be free. I didn’t really mind the smaller venue.” Limber plans on attending again, depending on how much admission costs next year.
Event Coordinator Lili Tzou said that the average fair day typically has about 5,000 guests, with peak attendance hovering around 8,000 people. Saturday’s crowd count was an estimated 10,000 attendees, she said. Despite some logistical roadblocks, Hoggetowne remains a highly popular event.
For Bauldree, the medieval fair is “like a big family reunion,” with her fellow performers and vendors as well as the Gainesville community. She said that she looks forward to commemorating the fair’s history and sharing the festival joy with everyone.
“I’ve dedicated part of my life to Hoggetowne all these years,” she said, “because there was someone who created the magic for me when I was a very lonely teenager. It doesn’t matter if you’re 100 years old or 2 years old; there is something for you at the fair.”
And most of all, Bauldree said, she believes in the fair’s resilience.
“To me, this is a legacy. We will build it back again to be bigger and better. We’re not giving up.”
# # #