Fair losing farming focus Agriculture takes back seat as suburbia becomes dominant

August 09, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Fair sits almost midway between an event that resembles its past and another that could signal its future.

To the north in Westminster, the Carroll County Fair remains an agriculture exposition -- there are no rides and no admission charges. To the south, the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair will hold a stunt car show and a demolition derby as part of its extensive entertainment this September.

The Howard County Fair sprouted from an agrarian community, a place for farmers to show off their crops and livestock. But as the fair prepares to open its gates for the 53rd time on Saturday, its western Howard community seems more crowded with suburban homes and Volvos than farm fields and tractors.

That changing landscape presents a challenge for organizers: How do they keep people coming year after year to an event that seems anachronistic in the age of Disney World and movie mega-plexes?

"This [time] is a turning point in the way the fair has to think," said F. Grant Hill, president of the fair's board of directors. "Howard County is a growing community, a growing area, and the fair reflects that."

The fair, a nonprofit organization, is run by a small board made up of mostly western Howard residents.

About 100,000 people are expected to pay the $3 admission charge during the fair's eight-day run from Aug. 15 to 22. That dwarfs Carroll County's attendance but is only half the attendance of the Montgomery County fair.

Hill, a part-time farmer and full-time dentist, and his predecessor raised the advertising budget from almost nothing to nearly $10,000 to help boost fair attendance. This year, for the second time, he held a media brunch, handing out slick press packets while serving up a smorgasbord of quiche, stuffed tomatoes and fresh fruit.

"We're just being a little more progressive than before," said Hill, who makes a dozen fair-related calls a day and conducts business between patients. The other afternoon, he met with an advertising executive for a radio station, which will air 25 spots during fair week.

Attendance worries

Some fair organizers, like board member Brice Ridgely, worry that attendance has stagnated during the past 10 years. He pushed a recent proposal to build a large grandstand to draw music groups and possibly a rodeo.

Others say the fair draws plenty of people for its nighttime events. Board members, such as Dale Hough, 55, a former president, said organizers should concentrate their marketing strategies on luring spectators to the daily agricultural shows -- the reason there is a fair at all.

Hough says he understands the need to hype the event; he also remembers growing up on a farm in Mount Airy, the excitement of the warm summer days leading up to fair time. No hype was needed for him; he doesn't want to see the fair lose those traditions.

"We're still trying to hold the western end of [Howard] County in terms of land use," he said. "Why can't we keep the fair's mission?"

When the fair started in the late 1940s, most board members were full-time farmers on large tracts of land from Ellicott City to Mount Airy. Though most current board members have agricultural roots, only four of the 18 make their primary living from farming.

David Patrick, a lifelong dairy farmer, remembers when everybody in Howard County seemed to be associated with agriculture. Even 30 years ago -- as Columbia was beginning -- 440 farms were scattered across the county. Today, that number has declined to about 275.

James Robert Moxley III, a vice president of a building and development firm, was raised across from the fairgrounds at Routes 144 and 32. He remembers the days when he walked his steers across the road. By the late 1950s, that was impossible as more traffic clogged the increasingly busy thoroughfare.

A different time

Most fair directors and longtime participants, some of them descendants of the fair's founders, remember the early years when children showed livestock and wives competed for best jellies and quilts and homemade soaps. And there was genuine excitement surrounding battles for the food preservation prizes.

They recalled a man named Nardy who ran a few small rides to keep the children busy while the real business of the fair continued elsewhere.

Now the lights and rides of the midway draw the oohs and ahs from many of those who attend. This year, the Tornado and Dizzy Dragons will be among the attractions, which cost 75 cents to $3 per ride.

Though competitions have expanded to include such things as woodworking and photography, best marigolds and casual table arrangement, participation in crop contests has declined. This year, officials expect only two or three entries in categories that once drew dozens.

The change in the fair did not come overnight -- it was more like looking in the mirror every day and not seeing the slow, subtle changes over the years.

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