`Crazy sheep people' seize day

May 02, 2008|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to the Sun

Open the paperback-length book that is this year's Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival catalog, turn about midway to page 102, and there it is in black and white: Leslie Clary was Lamb and Wool Queen in 1986.

She didn't stumble when asked the year of her reign, nor has she forgotten much about the festival's early days since she began volunteering in 1984.

"I guess you could say working on the festival is kind of an addiction," said the Dayton resident, who became Leslie Bauer at age 18 when she married high-school sweetheart Ricky Bauer 20 years ago. "Once it gets under your skin, there's no changing that."

The festival will be held tomorrow and Sunday at the Howard County Fairgrounds.

The Lamb and Wool Queen Contest, "which is based on knowledge, not beauty," is a nod to the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association, which sponsors the festival, Bauer said. Members of the nonprofit organization started the event in 1974 in Carroll County as a way to sell their fleece to people interested in spinning by hand, she said.

The event was moved to Howard County in the early 1980s and has made its home there ever since. Angora rabbits, goats, llamas and alpacas were later added to the mix.

But, back to the half-inch-thick catalog. Along with detailed schedules of events, its 184 pages are jammed with ads for every place and every event that has anything to do with sheep anywhere in the United States -- from other festivals to yarn shops to breeders.

"The Sheep and Wool Festival is what the county is known for nationally," said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of the Howard County Tourism Office, which has an information booth at the festival. "We did a license plate survey of the parking lot last year, and nearly all states were represented. This year, we may ask visitors to circle their hometowns on a map."

A catalog ad for a store in northern Baltimore County reads: "What do first-timers say when they walk into Woolstock Knit Shop? Somebody pinch me." That clever ad copy just about sums up the dreamy appeal of the festival, which attracts about 50,000 visitors who are not shy about opening their wallets to vendors from all over the world.

"I always say, `Come see the sheep and have fun -- but bring your checkbook,'" said Bauer. "There is something for everyone, from pottery to baskets to heirloom seeds. The items for sale go way beyond wool."

Bauer, who took on the paid part-time position of administrative assistant 15 years ago, said she can attest to the festival's popularity increasing annually. Work will begin on the 2009 edition of the fair at the end of this month. Her family's home -- on their 100-acre hog farm named Rural Rhythm Farm -- is bulging with festival correspondence and catalogs. She and co-chairwoman Michelle Yates received 80 new applications this year from vendors, but had room to accept 10.

"We hate turning anyone away, but we have used up every square inch of the fairgrounds," Bauer said. "We are weighing the possibility of extending the festival to three days since its popularity demands it.

"We're just a group of crazy sheep people who keep pulling off something very successful year after year," she said.

"Mostly what makes this work is the dedication of our volunteers," echoed Gwen Handler, festival chairwoman for more than 20 years. "It is a must-attend weekend in the sheep and wool industry, but still a great family event that fits in well with the whole `green' movement and going back to basics."

Handler, a teacher at Sandy Spring Friends School, has been the chief force behind the festival since 1980, said Bauer, adding, "I don't think there's a week goes by all year that she isn't thinking about the next one."

While the event is in full swing tomorrow and Sunday, several key deadlines for 2009 are several months away -- vendor applications are due Oct. 1 and entries in the festival art contest must be submitted by Nov. 10.

The winner's artwork is reproduced on T-shirts, sweat shirts, totes, backpacks, mousepads, mugs, hats and compact discs of the festival's live music. Because there is no admission fee, selling these items supports next year's festival, Handler said.

Musical artists include such festival favorites as Slim Harrison and the Sunnyland Band, who return year after year, as do the majority of vendors. A family hoedown is held both afternoons, which gets kids involved in playing jugs, wooden washboards and metal washtubs.

Sheep will be petted, sheared, herded and, yes, eaten, at the event. Available for consumption will be lamb prepared many ways, such as burgers, sausage, kabobs, and Greek gyros.

Sheep definitely rule the day in such events as the Sheep to Shawl Contest at 8 a.m. Sunday, which is exactly what it sounds like. Eight teams are timed "from shearing until the shawl is off the loom with fringes finished." Another crowd favorite are the working-sheepdog demonstrations.

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