OPINION: The County Fair - An Enduring Slice of Americana

By State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

State and county fairs owe their origin to a wealthy New England farmer and businessman, Elkanah Watson. Watson wanted to encourage farmers to raise Merino sheep because of their superior quality wool. So, he showcased his sheep under the elm tree in the Pittsfield, Massachusetts public square in 1807. To attract attention, he clanged an old ship's bell with a piece of iron. And the first county fair was born.

Since that time Americans have been attending state and county fairs to see the latest in agricultural technology, the best livestock, the biggest cucumbers, and sample the best baking, jellies, pickles and such. Arts and crafts, which have a unique place at the fair, are displayed with pride. County fairs are often accompanied by thrilling entertainment and amusement rides. The fair foods are bought and eaten with gusto. The corn dogs, barbecue, elephant ears, cheese curds, cotton candy and sticky apples have a pungent county fair taste. Usually, children's hands get sticky and sometimes, adults become children. Today, the county fair continues to be part and parcel of America's heritage, history and diversity.

State and County Fairs provide a place for 4-H and Future Farmers of America youth to display their farming talents, the livestock they have raised and compete for prizes. Often such competition ignites the agricultural fire in the heart of a young boy or girl.

Michigan held the first State Fair in 1849, twelve years after it attained statehood.

The Maryland State Fair, called the best eleven days of summer, is attended by a half million visitors. This year the State Fair runs from August 22 to September 1 at the Maryland State Fairground in Timonium.

The Southern Maryland County Fairs take a back seat to none. The 85th Charles County State Fair runs from September 10 to September 14 and is held at the Charles County Fair Grounds in LaPlata. St. Mary's opens its 61st annual fair runs from September 18 to September 21 at the Fair Ground in Leonardtown. The Calvert County Fair runs from September 24 to September 28 at the Fair Grounds at Barstow on Rt. 231.

The three Southern Maryland County Fairs team together and work together to assure that standards for judging and prizes awarded are uniform. Often Southern Marylanders enter, display and compete in two or three of the Fairs.

The granddaddy of Maryland county fairs is the Calvert County Fair which was first held in 1886 on the farm of Dr. Talbot in Northern Calvert County in Smithville (now Dunkirk). The fair was basically a get-together for men to view displays of cattle and tobacco. During the early years of the century, it is believed that these gatherings did continue as small social events.

During the twenties and thirties, the new Calvert County Agricultural Agent, John Morsell, saw the need to bring farm families together for educational purposes as well as fun. He believed the displays, comparisons and competition would bring new and effective methods of farming to them, resulting in a better cash crop. When the Calvert County Farm Bureau was organized, members saw the benefits of holding an annual Fair. They also saw the saw the need for a permanent home for the Fair, contacted the bank for a loan and personally obligated themselves to the purchase of permanent site.

Today, the mission of the County Fair is to educate the citizens of the importance of the farming community and our rich agricultural heritage.

County Fairs have something for everyone. From pie eating contests to tractor pulls, from landscaping competitions to excellence in photography, from sheep shearing to pig races, from tops in tomatoes to pretty animal contests, from chainsaw exhibitions to brass bands, from Ferris wheels to a 4-H youngster's first blue ribbon.

Maryland's number one industry is agriculture and the Fairs are agriculture's number one promotional tool. The Fairs beckon urban and suburban dwellers to the world of agriculture and the richness of its bounty and way of life.

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