It's billed as "the 11 best days of summer." But who's to say the Maryland State Fair's slogan is anything more than advertising hype? The 121st fair - which begins tomorrow in Timonium and runs through Sept. 2 - offers agricultural displays, home arts, musical entertainment, thrill rides, all sorts of competitions and delectable food.
The fair showcases traditions that reach back to its inception, such as the livestock shows and horse racing, as well as more modern events, including the NASA robotics competition and one of this year's new features, the Xtreme Air Stunt Show.
All that's well and good and then some, but is the State Fair truly the 11 best days of summer? We really wanted to know, so we asked 11 "unbiased experts," ranging from a farm-queen contestant to the fair's general manager. The answer each gave: a resounding yes.
Following are their stories and some reflections on what the fair means to them.
The farm queen
Kristen Willie is certain this will be her best State Fair ever.
Over the past 11 years, the 18-year-old has entered pigs, sheep, dogs and horses in competitions at the fair.
This year, it's just Willie and a single pig. But as the Howard County farm queen and an entrant in the State Fair farm-queen contest, Willie will have more than enough to do over the next 11 days.
She was surprised and pleased to be chosen from among the six candidates in the Howard contest, and she has high hopes for winning the Maryland Farm Bureau Queen Contest. But she says she'll be happy no matter the outcome because "You don't always win the blue ribbon."
The contest, which features candidates from every county that cares to participate, begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Horse Sales Pavilion.
The sash and tiara that Willie wears may have changed how others perceive her, but the glittery accessories haven't altered the Glenwood resident a bit. If a wayward fair pig crosses her path or a young 4-H'er loses control of a lamb, Willie swears she'll jump right in to help, just like always.
"I'm not just gonna stand there 'cause I'm in a dress," she says. "I'm gonna help you. I like to be involved."
When Mark Rosenthal was growing up, his father was a jockey's agent. When the races started in Timonium each summer, Rosenthal and his parents would spend the day at the track and the evening at the fair.
"I loved going to the track, and the fair was like a bonus," recalls Rosenthal, a 29-year-old Sykesville resident.
Today, he cherishes the experience even more. A professional jockey with a decade in the business under his belt, Rosenthal will ride in six to nine races each day of the fair's eight-day race schedule, which begins Saturday. His wife, Gina, works at the track. Their young sons, Anthony and Gino, often tag along for fun.
Two years ago, Rosenthal won five races in a day - "the best day I've had over there."
The purse at Timonium isn't typically as large as that at other area tracks, and the horses might not always be the fastest around, but for short-track racing (five-eighths of a mile), the State Fair can't be beat, Rosenthal says.
"It's more of a laid-back, fun atmosphere," he adds. "It's always fun to ride there. I tend to have pretty good meets."
The 4-H parent
Yesterday, Mary Thomas took the day off to drive her two sons and their various 4-H projects from the family's home in Pasadena to the State Fair. Thomas, 43, says she counts the hours she spends on 4-H activities as some of the best time she shares with her family.
This year's fair is the fifth for 12-year-old Brandon and the first for 9-year-old Jason.
The boys have insect collections on display in the 4-H/Home Arts Building as well as photographs and crafts projects. The family, including dad Ethan, will drive back to Timonium over the weekend to see how the boys' entries fared.
"The first thing Brandon always looks at is what kind of ribbon he got on his entomology project," Mary Thomas says with a chuckle. "And Jason's really excited because he's watched his brother do this for four years, and now it's his turn."
The futurity winner
It's been called a breeder's cup for dairy cattle. To outsiders who stumble into the Cow Palace during the Maryland Holstein Association's annual futurity, the event probably looks like a debutante ball for bovines. The lights are dimmed. The cows are gussied up, their coats shiny and their tails teased. The hopefuls and their handlers are led around the spotlighted ring by a master of ceremonies driving a historic convertible.
The event is one of Nona Schwartzbeck's favorite times at the fair. The Holstein futurity (8 p.m. Sept. 1) recognizes the animal judged to be the most like the ideal Holstein cow.
Schwartzbeck and her husband, Joe, started showing dairy cattle at the State Fair 37 years ago. Today, three generations of Schwartzbecks come to Timonium from Peace and Plenty Farm in Union Bridge.