State Fair heads into its 125th year


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August 26, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Several weeks ago, The New York Times reported that attendance has dropped sharply at state fairs in the country's midsection and elsewhere in the nation.

Here in Maryland, attendance at the state fair has been down somewhat over the past few years, but that may be due to extenuating circumstances. "We used to get 500,000 to 550,000," Howard "Max" Mosner, president and general manager of the Maryland State Fair, said yesterday. The fair opened yesterday at the fairgrounds in Timonium, and continues through Sept. 4.

"Our attendance fluctuates because of several factors. Schools now open before Labor Day, and last year, light rail wasn't operating because of the double-tracking project," he said.

In 2004, 489,000 fairgoers entered through the turnstiles; that number fell to 424,000 last year, Still Mosner is optimistic as the fair celebrates its 125th year.

"We may have to adjust our schedule in the future, but we're OK. We have no debt, which is our ace in the hole," Mosner said.

The fair had its beginnings in the 1830s as an annual farmers' picnic that was held at Ridgely's Grove, not far from its present location.

The fair tradition, according to Paige Horine, author of the recently published The Maryland State Fair: Celebrating 125 Years, goes back much further.

"It began as early as the 18th century," she wrote, "and records indicate that a fair was held on the estate of prominent businessman John Eager Howard in 1745."

In 1878, the Agricultural Society of Baltimore County was incorporated. It leased a 37-acre site along the tracks of the Northern Central Railway and staged the first fair from Sept. 9-12, 1879. The fair has been held annually since then except for several years during World War II when the military was using the fairgrounds.

The Hon. William T. Hamilton, the featured speaker who opened the 1879 fair, was described by The Sun as "the card."

His remarks, faithfully reprinted in their entirety, recalled the history of farming from the time of the ancients and reminded his listeners that while machinery had reduced farm drudgery and there was more knowledge about plants and fertilizers, modern farmers still shared one thing with those who plowed and sowed fields before them.

"The farmer is always dealing with the mysteries of nature, the mysteries of the soil and the mysteries of production. Labor, the sun and the rain are his instrumentalities," Hamilton said.

In addition to the judging of cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and poultry, and farm and garden products, which mainly occupied male visitors, there were events for the ladies, as well.

"The ladies' department is a feature of the exhibition, and contains an almost endless variety of jellies, preserves, pickles, wines, cordials, canned fruits, needlework, patchwork, &c.," The Sun reported. At the end of the four-day event, some 21,000 fairgoers had arrived by carriage, horse and buggy, or the fast trains of the Northern Central.

It was a star-studded set of the prominent, including Abells, Baldwins, Worthingtons, Gittings, Ridgelys, Slingluffs, Jarretts, Yellotts and Cockeys, who set the fair's tone and gave it an air of social respectability.

A closing-day event that seemed to be a favorite was a 125-yard horse race that the winning rider, D. Jenifer Jr., managed to accomplish in nine seconds.

"Three arches were erected in front of the grand stand, which was well-filled with ladies and gentlemen. It was conceded that no county in the State could exceed the number of beautiful and attractive ladies," reported The Sun.

Other events included the crowning of "Miss Nellie Strahn, of Baltimore, as the Queen of Love and Beauty," with a court that included three maidens, reported the newspaper.

A plowing match, trotting matches and a scrub race were also featured.

"The scrub race, a half-mile dash, was won by Jacob Ulman's Eclipse in 59 seconds," reported the newspaper.

The newspaper's assessment was that the fair was "a great success."

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