Blue-ribbon Memories Of Fair

August 27, 1994|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

Next to his right knee, tucked away in a sliding drawer, Nelson Phelps stores just about every statistic calculable on the Maryland State Fair in Timonium:

Such as how many cattle were judged last year, who owned the winning swine, the number of 4-H Club members who placed exhibits, all for anyone to take a gander.

And for glimpses into the state fairs of yesteryear, when people arrived by horses and dressed in their Sunday best, Mr. Phelps, 77, also is the man with the answers.

But these records are not kept in that unkempt sliding desk drawer. They're neatly filed away in his memory. To fetch something from the past, all you have to do is ask.

"I'm the old man of the nation, the source for historical knowledge," said Mr. Phelps, an affable man with a strong stance and a booming voice. It is a role in which he revels.

Except for a few years when he was a fighter-bomber pilot during World War II, Mr. Phelps has attended nearly every fair in Timonium since he first showed his Jersey heifer in the dairy division in 1930. He won a second prize.

In 1948, he landed a job with the Maryland State Fair Board as executive secretary, a position he kept until he semiretired in 1977.

"I had just come back from the war and I needed a job," he said. "Then I happened to see an ad in The Sun so I applied and got it. Never regretted it."

After "retiring," he became assistant general manager until he stepped down two years ago. Now his days are filled with accumulating data and reviewing premium lists for the exhibits as assistant operations manager -- and telling anyone who wants to know about the state fairs of history.

Mr. Phelps sat at his desk in his fairgrounds office, rattling off facts and stories effortlessly, eyes cast back and weathered hands interlocked. While preparing for the official opening of the 1994 fair today, he recalled the way it was at fairs in the 1930s.

"The family would come as a unit dressed in their best," he said. "Men would have their canes and the women would be in their hats and dresses. People would walk their ponies from Harford County and I knew this doctor who would walk his cattle here. There were no buildings, just huge tents. And the fair started out lasting five days back then.

"Of course, everything was on a much smaller scale and now there are games and rides that take up a much bigger share of the fair. If we had 20 cattle back then, we were lucky; now they have 700 of one kind."

And the food in those days? Thank God for food inspectors, he said.

In the 1930s, "The food was not too trustworthy," he said. "I was hungry one night and I got a burger. A bad one. I got sick as a puppy. Soon as I finished my work that day, I had to sleep it off."

But for the most part, Mr. Phelps said, not much has changed.

"There is still that sense of community," he mused. "Agriculture will always be the backbone of any state fair. Things will change but I don't think too much."

Max Mosner, vice president and general manager of the fair, agreed with Mr. Phelps.

The fairgrounds, surrounded by development on about 90 acres, has no space left to increase the number of exhibits, Mr. Mosner said. He once contemplated moving the fair to a larger site, he said, but no suitable location could be found.

More than a half-million people now come out for the 10-day extravaganza each year. For the 113th fair, officials hope that more than 600,000 will come to see the animals and exhibits and try the rides and games on the midway.

For Mr. Phelps, moving the fair away from Timonium would be close to treason, except he is too genteel to say something like that.

"York Road, the railroad and the community makes this the perfect place, plus there is the whole historical aspect of the fairgrounds," he said.

Besides, the state fair is still doing well after weathering bigger obstacles: diminishing farmlands and youngsters who find more appeal in video games than in raising hogs.

"I'm optimistic that there will always be a place for the State Fair," he said. "There is no other combination of learning experiences and exhibits around."

And he still is learning, he said.

"Even at my age, I still look forward to the fair 10 years down the road," he said.

But for now, he is concentrating on enjoying it this year -- watching the judging, stopping by to see what young people are displaying and avoiding the crafts exhibits because "that's women's work."

Then it is off to his favorite ride -- the Ferris wheel.

"They are much bigger now than they used to be but I like to get to the top and look over everything," he said. "It is a nice view."

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