Family fun is the staple that holds fair together

County fair marks 60 years

July 31, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Every year, new groups of round-bellied swine, woolly lambs and big, stubborn steers are paraded, coaxed and dragged around the Howard County Fair show ring in animal competitions.

But for Eileen Day of Marriottsville, the exhibitors are often familiar.

"My husband had shown with some of the older folks. Then our children showed against their children, and now our grandchildren are showing against their grandchildren," said Day, 70, who served as fair secretary for 20 years.

"It kind of gets in your blood," she said.

Such traditions are one reason the fair, which begins its 60th season Friday, has thrived even as the historically rural nature of the county has changed steadily to a suburban one.

In 1953 -- the year the land was purchased for the fair's permanent home -- there were 23,064 residents in the county, and 1,051 farms used 76.6 percent of the land, according to a history compiled by fair volunteers.

In 2002, less than 24 percent of the county land was being used by 346 farms, according to the county Economic Development Authority. The population had surpassed 264,000.

Meanwhile, the fair has grown in attendance, drawing an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 people last year and setting a one-day attendance record.

Buildings have been added to the fairgrounds, carnival rides have become popular, and categories have been added for computer-generated art and digital photography. But when the fair begins, many elements will be familiar.

Performances by the Browningsville Cornet Band, the Farm Bureau's contest to choose a spokeswoman (formerly called the farm queen, now named Miss Howard County Farm Bureau), a baby contest and the amateur variety talent show all have their roots in the first fair in 1946.

Bingo has remained popular, although the cost of a game has risen from 10 cents to 25 cents. And the parade of floats has signaled the end of the fair as far back as most people remember.

Even additions have an old-fashioned flavor. Square dancing is returning to the fair this year after a hiatus. A barbershop quartet will perform daily, and a mule-pulling contest has been added for the first time.

"The unique thing, I think, about the Howard County Fair, it is strictly a family fair," said Gene Mullinix of Woodbine. He is a past fair board president who has attended every one of the previous 59 fairs.

"It is a very conservative board," he said. They have always insisted on a no-alcohol policy, they rejected the idea of a several-thousand-seat grandstand, and they built new livestock barns to look exactly like the old barns, but with updated electricity.

Perhaps most important for the continued success of the fair, home arts contests, farm crops competitions and animal shows have remained popular for six decades.

"We've tried over the years to make sure it's a family event, and the focus is on the 4-H livestock and vegetables rather than making it more commercial," said Vaughn Turner, president of the fair board.

Last year's home arts competition, which covers more than 800 categories in the areas of food preservation, baking, sewing, woodworking and fine arts, had at least 200 entrants who had never participated before.

Gardening remains popular, ensuring the entry of award-winning tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, squash, and more than 30 other types of fruits and vegetables.

Despite predictions that the rise of Columbia would be the end of farm activities, 4-H participation has remained high in the county.

At the fair, rabbit and poultry entries have grown in recent years because those animals are easier to raise on small pieces of land, Turner said.

But entries in traditional animal categories have increased this year also.

This year, 121 4-H participants have entered market pigs, 69 have entered market lambs, 42 have entered beef steers and 22 have entered market goats. Market animals are ones raised for food rather than breeding.

The 4-H program involves mostly young people who do not live on farms, but who want an agricultural experience.

The fair "provides an environment for these kids to participate," Mullinix said, "to grow and learn and generate friendships that last a lifetime."

In addition to suburban youth in 4-H, the fair has attracted suburban families.

"If anything, the people coming into Columbia have helped us grow attendance-wise," Day said.

"You can see sheep-shearing; you can see a calf being born. ... You just don't see that anywhere," she said. "I just feel like people get a little bit of everything.

"Plus," she said, "it's a good old homey atmosphere."

Fair facts

Opening night: The Howard County Fair begins at 5 p.m. Friday with a 60th anniversary celebration, including rides, food vendors and the band Confederate Railroad for a $5 admission fee.

When: Regular fair activities, including animal shows, demonstrations and entertainment, begin Saturday and continue through Aug. 13. From 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Admission: $4 for adults, $2 for those ages 62 and older; free for children younger than 10.

Parking: Free.

Location: The fairgrounds is off Route 144 in West Friendship.

Information: 410-442-1022, or

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