Almost everyone was smiling last night at the big event of the 50th annual Howard County Fair.
Even Cortney Hill-Dukehart of Sykesville forced a stiff-lipped grin for buyers at the 4-H livestock sale as she led Speck, her blue-ribbon lamb, around the main show ring at the fairgrounds in West Friendship.
Thirteen-year-old Cortney even flashed some teeth as photographers' strobes lighted her, her lamb and the buyer from Safeway who bid $2.50 a pound for Speck.
But as she held her lamb by the face and led it across the pine shavings for the last time, her face contorted into a wince and tears began rolling down her cheeks.
Cortney was one of many 4-H Club members, who were rewarded in cash for months and sometimes years of sweat and bruises. But they were also selling for slaughter animals that some of them had grown to love.
Some, like Cortney, cried for the animals they had fed, bathed, rescued from snowstorms and even stayed up nights comforting. Other green-denim clad 4-H'ers were relieved, others elated at being at the center of the climactic event of the fair.
Most 4-H'ers welcomed it as the payoff for being good, hard-working kids. For buyers, it was an investment in the future of their community.
"If there were a lot more of these kind of children, there'd be a hell of a lot less violence, guns, drugs -- all those negative things," said Gene Iager of Fulton, who runs one of the county's largest farming operations. He bought a cage of rabbits for $60 with a wink to one of the four ring men who visually gathered bids for the auctioneer.
Mr. Iager has 450 head of dairy cattle and about 20,000 turkeys, but said he was darned if he knew what he was going to do with those three rabbits.
But that didn't matter last night, said John Fleishell, a 4-H volunteer who helped line up youthful sellers for the lamb sale.
"At the [commercial] livestock sale up in Westminster, you can buy lamb for 75 cents a pound. We average $3 a pound, and that's supporting a 4-H project and the kids," he said.
As a tribute to those buyers, Howard County Beef Club members opened the beef sale by pledging to contribute $500 in sale proceeds to the Howard County General Hospital Neo-Natal Care Unit.
"Hey! Buy these things like you buy those racehorses," taunted beef auctioneer Brice Ridgely of Cooksville as he looked at Donald Souder of Dayton, a builder who races horses at Laurel Race Course.
The grand champion steer, owned by 8-year-old Ryan Bennett of Woodbine, fetched $3,200, or $2.50 a pound. Most other steers, which, like the lambs and pigs were judged fat enough for market, sold for a little more than $1 a pound.
Fifteen-year-old Patrick Mullinix, whose father, Gene, buys and sells farm supplies and equipment near Lisbon, had no trouble looking at the sale from a business perspective.
"We don't get close to our pigs and name them and stuff because we know they're going to the packing house," he said before the sale. His 257-pound crossbred grand champion swine sold for $12 a pound to a local lumber company.
Such an attitude would make for a less cluttered backyard, in the eyes of Cortney's father, Bob Hill. He scratched his daughter's steer, Freckles, from the sale.
"They started crying last week and I couldn't take it," he said. "I'm glad I don't have more land, because I'd have 50 steers out in the field and they'd all have names and they'd all be pets."
Chad Wolbert, 15, of Woodbine, was relieved and just a touch disappointed that his blue-ribbon 1,184-pound Angus crossbred steer, George, brought only $1 a pound.
"I'm going to lose money on her, but overall I'm going to make money on 4-H projects," he said as he leaned against the wooden railing of one of the beef barns with one of his python-skin boots pressed back against the whitewashed planks.
"It's a lot of work and I'm kind of happy that I'm getting a break for a while," he said, loosening his black patternless tie. "I'm done for this year."