Volunteers keep revived tradition alive

Farm Fair


Everything that the Equestrian Center in Bel Air needs to transform into the Harford County Farm Fair arrives early this week, well ahead of the opening of the 19th annual event Thursday. And as they have since 1988, Aimee O'Neill and her husband, Jim Torre, will be involved from the prayerful start until the last pig races.

The 7 a.m. prayer breakfast starts four days of fair activities.

"We have always started with nondenominational prayer," said O'Neill, who has helped organize and volunteered at all 19 fairs. "We thank the Lord and set the fair off on the right note."

O'Neill met her husband of 15 years while they worked at the fair.

"We haven't missed one since," she said. "And our two children have worked the fair since they could walk."

The couple's sons are the third generation engaged in the family's fair tradition.

John O'Neill, Aimee's late father, and several volunteers revived the county's long-standing fair in 1988 and brought it to the Equestrian Center on Tollgate Road. The event had been downsized after the Bel Air Race Track, its original location, was razed to make way for Harford Mall nearly 40 years ago.

"Enough people missed it that several volunteers decided to restart it and provide 4-H with greater visibility and a larger venue," O'Neill said. "Overall, ours is an agricultural fair that celebrates our farm heritage and its role in the county's economic picture."

The four large white tents rising on the center grounds today signal that the final preparations are under way. Vendors will set up booths for their wares, and entertainers will rehearse before taking to the fair's stage.

Among the traditional 4-H exhibits and contests, livestock shows and auctions, and concerts and fireworks, this year offers Al the caricaturist from Las Vegas, an audience-participation act dubbed Dancing Heads and campaigning politicians.

Fairgoers can watch tractor pulls, sheep dog trials and horse shows. They can listen to country stars crooning from the stage, handle a boa constrictor and cheer at watermelon- and pie-eating contests.

"And every year we try to have at least one pig give birth," said Joan Ryder, a Bel Air real estate agent who has helped organize the fair for 15 years.

Some 3,000 volunteers help make a success of the fair, which draws about 50,000 visitors annually. Business and corporate sponsors, including Aberdeen Proving Ground, which donates $10,000 to the fair, help defray the costs. Any proceeds go toward next year's fair activities.

Daily admission is $7 per person, $3 for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children younger than 5. Businesses offer gimmicks and giveaways, Ryder said, adding that her company passes out bottles of sunscreen.

"This community helps me to have a career," said Ryder. "This is something I can share with the community. I couldn't do it without sponsors."

In the Kidway area, a term John O'Neill coined to distinguish it from the more commercial Midway, children can play bingo, show off a pet and have their faces painted - all free of charge. O'Neill's grandsons play many of the games he built by hand, such as the dunking booth and ring toss.

"This is family-oriented with no midway," Ryder said. "Kids pay to get in the gate and need no other money. Parents will not be nickel-and-dimed for everything."

Local businesses have donated prizes for the children's games. On Saturday, they will have a free lunch, including hot dog, soda and snowball.

"We really have nothing kids can put a quarter into," said Kerry Hochstein, Darlington businessman and fair organizer.

Kidway needs volunteers, especially face painters, said Joy Brewster, volunteer coordinator. Any organization that can lend 16 members to Kidway for the day - working in shifts is possible - can raise funds for its activities. (Volunteers, who must be at least 13 to work without adult supervision, should call 410-638-4444 for times and dates.)

"It's a great opportunity for community service," Brewster said. "Without our volunteers, we can't have all the activities we have planned."

The whole purpose of the fair is to showcase 4-H, Future Farmers of America and the agricultural heritage of Harford County, Hochstein said. About 800 members of 4-H clubs throughout the county participate by showing off their crafts, animals and vegetables. Visitors can meander through exhibit areas filled with members' photography, wood carvings, quilts and needlework. Club members will demonstrate canning and baking skills, sewing and candle making.

The eclectic mix of entertainment caters to myriad tastes and includes magic shows, country crooners, bagpipers and cloggers.

"Our whole philosophy is to make this an affordable opportunity for people to learn about agriculture and to enjoy themselves," O'Neill said. "This is not another carnival. This is a true farm fair."

And a real family event, Ryder said, that caters to "families who plan their vacations around it."

Hochstein said he most enjoys the unique mix of generations.

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