Some people attend the Harford County Farm Fair for the animals, others for the food and games. For Norman Grafton, the attraction is something big, noisy - and definitely at home on the farm.
"From the first time I went to the fair I became addicted to the fellowship of the people who participate in the antique tractor pull," said Grafton, co-chairman of the antique tractor events at the 18th annual fair, which takes place Thursday through July 31 in Bel Air. "I started out as a participant, and now I run the show. It takes me back to a time when things weren't so hectic."
Grafton owns and operates a small grain farm and a tractor-repair business in Bel Air. He will compete and show four of his collection of about 15 antique tractors.
"When I first started buying tractors, I bought the older models and restored them, because it's all I could afford," said Grafton. "But now it's just something I really enjoy."
Grafton is among the 40,000 people expected to attend this week's festivities, which include a mix of entertainment, demonstrations and competitions highlighting the county's rural heritage.
The pull and the follies
The events Grafton will enter include an antique tractor pull Thursday and follies Sunday. The tractor pull features machines built in 1952 or earlier dragging a weighted sled.
"The first time we participated in the tractor pull, my wife let the clutch out too quickly and the front end went up and she let out a scream," said Grafton. "That was fun. And every year after that we've had a good time."
Antique tractor pulls were added to the fair schedule in 1991. The first year, the antique competition had about 15 to 20 competitors - but after the event ballooned to 100 participants, officials limited the competition to 75 entries.
"The event always fills up," said Grafton. "People come and compete for trophies, ribbons, bragging rights and sometimes to settle a grudge bet."
Rules are stringent and include a $500 fine and disqualification for anyone caught tampering with tractors.
After the pulling contest winners are announced, a fireworks show caps the end of festivities on opening night.
"The fireworks are shot up-close and personal," said Joan Ryder, co-chairwoman of the fair. "Thousands of people come to see it."
The antique tractor follies July 31 will include seven events in which competitors show their driving abilities on tractors built in 1959 or earlier. The fair also holds tractor pulls using newer models.
Among the other events being coordinated by John and Phyllis Harkins at the fair are dressage and polo demonstrations - and few less dignified displays.
"The buffalo chip throwing is one of the most entertaining events," said Phyllis Harkins. "Each person gets a dry buffalo chip and they throw it as far as they can. We give them gloves to handle it with. They're odd-shaped so they are tough to throw. Some people toss them 4 or 5 feet and others throw them quite far."
Another event the Harkinses coordinate is the raccoon-mule jump.
"Mules were used to hunt raccoons years ago," said Phyllis Harkins. "People get to watch the mules jump, and then the kids can ride the mules."
Ryder said several new events and activities are included in the schedule this year, including a Masters of the Chainsaw wood-carving demonstration.
The fair also features such traditional events and the pie-eating and watermelon-eating competitions.
Throughout it all, the focus remains on the promotion of farm life, with an eye toward the next generation entering the field of agriculture.
"Everything we do here is for the county 4-H," said Ryder. "We give people ways to support them. After the kids show their animals, we hold an auction where they sell their prized animals. If you buy an animal and don't want the meat, you can donate it back to the 4-H and still write it off. Either way, this is a great way to show support and have a great time with the whole family."
The annual Harford County Farm Fair takes place Thursday through July 31 at the Equestrian Center, 608 N. Tollgate Road, Bel Air. Admission: Thursday and Sunday, $5; Friday and Saturday, $7; children 5 to 12, $3; children younger than 5, free.
Free shuttle buses will run continuously from Fallston High School and Bel Air High School. Patrons can park and ride to the fair. There are on-site parking spaces for about 1,000 vehicles.