The high-jumping mules, racing pigs and hefty draft horses return to Maryland's largest free fair tomorrow.
The weeklong event features spirited auctions of livestock and edible art, and whimsical contests testing skills such as pie-eating, watermelon-seed-spitting and milk-mustache-making. Also, a petting zoo, a welding competition and a roving robot make their debuts this year.
But the highlight of the 107th Carroll County 4-H/FFA Fair in Westminster is the new agriculture arena, a $5.5 million building with a show ring and enough room to show 1,000 animals to several hundred spectators. The Danele Shipley Arena, named for a late teacher dedicated to 4-H, offers 52,500 square feet of space, including air-conditioned offices, kitchens, bathrooms and showers.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has promised to dedicate the building Tuesday and unveil a wooden quilt, a 6-foot-by- 6-foot carving filled with fair and 4-H symbols.
"There is no doubt that the building is the big star this year," said Bruce Bennett, vice president of the fair board. "People are already coming in to see the building, and everybody is amazed. People who haven't been here in years want to see the arena."
This year's fair could outdo last year's by 60,000 visitors, organizers predict.
"The ag community is close-knit, and the fair is a big thing that they all will be part of," Bennett said. "Where else can you take the family to see all the animals they want to see and have all the good food and wholesome entertainment they want?"
Fair manager Barry Lippy said, "You can turn your kids loose here and not worry."
For Lippy, the event is all in the family. His 16-year-old daughter, Jamie Lynn, is Miss 4-H, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Jenny. His wife, Jane, a club moderator, serves as assistant supervisor for the fair's indoor activities.
"My house looks like a factory right now with exhibits everywhere," Lippy said, adding that it will take the better part of today to deliver everything to the fairgrounds.
The new digs on Smith Avenue differ greatly from the ramshackle sheds that were razed to make way for the arena, which occupies 1 1/2 acres next to Burns Hall on the agriculture center's grounds.
Instead of pole barns with no heat or walls, animals will occupy well-ventilated areas with fans to cool them. About a dozen 14-foot-high overhead doors help with ventilation and provide easy access to the arena for trucks and heavy equipment.
Nearly 200 volunteers have installed holding pens for the sheep, pigs and goats. Cattle ties, on loan from the Maryland State Fair, will accommodate the heifers and steers. The volunteers returned yesterday to fill the pens with bedding.
During the fair, which runs through Aug. 6, vendors, entertainment and other activities will be stationed throughout the agriculture center.
Among the 16,000 exhibits - everything from latchhook rugs to 1,200-pound steers - will be those of Phyllis McKenzie, 11; Ashley Carlisle, 13; and the Thomas brothers, 11-year-old Bradley and 13-year-old David.
"I grew up with 4-H," said Ashley, who raises ducks and chickens at a farm near her Union Bridge home. "I have been raising animals since I was little, and I've had a lot of fun experiences."
Between her almost daily skating practices in Frederick, Phyllis raises animals on her family's dairy farm in Silver Run.
Her fondness for skating spills over into her 4-H activities. Her three porcine entries are named Michelle, Tara and Nancy after popular skating stars, and she will dress her bunny Blue Bonnet in skating togs.
"4-H has taught me how to manage time wisely," Phyllis said.
Two days after last year's fair, the Thomas brothers collided while riding their four-wheelers on their farm in Millers. Bradley was thrown from his vehicle, and his left leg was broken in several places.
He endured three surgeries, spent months in a wheelchair and could not return to school until spring. But he was determined to raise pigs to show at the fair this year.
"4-H was a great support system for us," said his mother, Diane Thomas. "All the kids came to the house often and helped Brad. He was not able to do a lot physically, but he was right there with us from the beginning, even helping to deliver the pigs he is showing."
Thanks to his brother and his fellow 4-Hers, Brad will show five pigs that were born at his farm in February. Brad said that his leg hurt once he "got moving again," but that walking with the pigs was good exercise for all. The pigs weigh from 250 pounds to 280 pounds, he said.
Volunteers keep the fair running, said Lynn Talbert, chairwoman of the fair board. Many parents have served more than 20 years and continue to help long after their children have outgrown the clubs. Doug Henley has run the pit beef stand for 10 years, grilling tons of beef, ham, turkey and sausage. He expects to sell about 1,300 pounds of pit beef this week.
Henley said he will take a little time out Friday evening when his oldest son, Jay, performs with the Stone Broke Country Band. The Henley children are adults now, but their father said they all relish their 4-H days.
"You can walk through this fair and see hundreds of kids," Henley said. "4-H is just a great thing. It teaches kids respect and responsibility."