County Fair, Too, Changes With the Times


August 15, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace For four long days, Vanilla and Smoky observed the exhibition through the wire.

It was quite a spectacle, and a little scary at first. The noise was considerable and so were the odors, as under the big tent a stream of strange creatures, many with young, strolled steadily past. Most were large and some were loud, and a few came very close.

But as none showed predatory intentions, the spectators behind the wire soon relaxed.

"Oh, look at the cute bunnies," a voice might say, as a face loomed into view just outside the cage. The first time this happened it was startling, but after a while Vanilla and Smoky, like the other hundred-plus rabbits at the recent Harford County Farm Fair, just peered back incuriously.

Beyond the tent the rabbits shared with some chickens, the fair swirled exuberantly on. Farm animals, mostly shown by young 4-H members, were fed and washed and brushed and eventually judged. Country music twanged away about achy-breaky hearts, while sheep dogs, coonhunters' mules, cow-chip tossers, racing pigs and souped-up tractors engaged in assorted competitions.

By the evening of the fourth day, more than 70,000 people had passed through the gates. The fair, like most of its previous renewals over the last few years, was a resounding success. There are both practical and metaphysical reasons why this is so.

A summer fair is a traditional part of the life of a rural county. It offers farm people a chance to get together and, if they're so inclined, to show off their skills or their produce. It's an important enough event to justify the maintenance of a fairgrounds that commonly stands unused 51 weeks of every year.

But in the suburbs, land costs are higher and priorities aren't the same. When a county gets big enough, it usually gives up its old farm fair. As a rule no one complains except a few sentimentalists and what's left of the local farming community, which by that time generally isn't much.

From about 1875 until the 1950s, the Harford County Fair, in the small county-seat settlement of Bel Air, was one of the best. It was held on a 100-acre tract on the edge of town. The facilities were excellent. The fair had a grandstand, exhibition buildings, and a half-mile thoroughbred racetrack.

It withstood two world wars and a depression, but it couldn't survive suburbanization.

By the mid-1960s, Harford County was no longer truly rural. Land development had overtaken agriculture as the underpinning of the local economy. New roads brought Baltimore within commuting distance. Today's population is triple 1960's,and in Bel Air a traffic-choked mall has replaced the old fairgrounds.

The last race ever run on the old Bel Air racetrack was in the summer of 1966. It was called the Long Ears Handicap, and entries were limited to amateur riders on mules. This correspondent rode the winner, persevering to the finish line after several frontrunners left the course through a gap in the rail and galloped into the parking lot. The event went unreported in The Sun. Shortly afterward, the bulldozers moved in.

That seemed to end an era. But then, after more than 20 years without a fair, a handful of visionary people in Harford County decided to try again. Their efforts succeeded beyond their fondest hopes; the new fair, held on county-owned property only a mile or so from the old site, grows bigger and more elaborate every year.

But just as Harford County isn't what it was, the new fair is different, too. A farm fair today, in a suburbanized county, is to a degree an exercise in nostalgia. Few of the young 4-H members so ably exhibiting their animals live on farms, or at least on farms that are self-sustaining economic units. And even fewer will go on to careers in agriculture or animal husbandry.

But that doesn't seem to diminish their and their parents' enthusiasm for the care and feeding of livestock or the sharpening of other farm-related skills.

(The fair administration tries to engage the interest of potential participants at the youngest possible age. Thus, in addition to tractor pulls for big kids driving diesel-powered behemoths, there are entry-level classes for little kids on pedal-powered equipment.)

In its new and revitalized form, the Harford County Farm Fair brings together people who are nominally neighbors but who lead very different lives, and gives them some useful common ground. And just as old-fashioned county fairs used to reinforce the sense of a place's identity, and encouraged the idea that all who lived there had a stake in its future, the new fair seeks to build community cohesion.

That's a daunting task in a modern suburb, where so many people have no real links to the places where they live, but each year the new Harford fair makes a valiant try.

It also tends to leave participants in a state of quite traditional exhaustion. Thus Vanilla, judged the champion New Zealand white rabbit, and Smoky, the champion crossbred, hopped into their hutch at home on Sunday night and collapsed, oblivious to their blue ribbons. Their 9-year-old owner/manager was weary,

too, but already looking forward to next year.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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