By Sara Gordon
Summer is officially upon us, and with summer comes fairs! Whether you enjoy them for the food, entertainment, agricultural displays or the rides, have you ever wondered how all of Maryland’s county fairs came to be? Read on for a brief history of the fairs and how they all got their start.
The Maryland State Fair
The first successful State Fair in Maryland was held in 1878, run by a group of Maryland businessmen on a 4-acre lot in Lutherville. Later that year, the extension of the Northern Central Railway cut through the fairgrounds. What might have been an end to the State Fair actually fueled it, as the Northern Central Railway became the primary source of transportation to the fair’s new location–a leased 37-acre plot of land known as the Timonium Estate. In its early years, the fair had a rival in the Pimlico Fair, also in Baltimore and also referred to as the State Fair. In the end, the two groups held joint fairs in 1894 and 1897, and finally merged to form the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society of Baltimore County in 1906.
Popular attractions in the early years included plowing and working oxen, as well as horse racing. Final results of the races were forwarded to interested horsemen in the surrounding areas by carrier pigeons. Its simple format started to change into something more complex as time went on, with an increase in attractions and exhibits, but was halted due to the war effort in 1943 when the fairgrounds were leased by the U.S. Army as a storage depot and a vehicle repair center. The Fair would not reopen its gates until 1946.
In the 1950s, the Maryland Jockey Club, which was the majority stockholder of the Timonium property, was planning to sell the land. A community-created “Save the Maryland State Fair Committee” raised over $600,000 to purchase the fairgrounds instead, ensuring it would continue at that location annually. In the 1970s, the committee was successful in keeping Thoroughbred racing as part of the fair, as well as receiving a grant to expand the fairgrounds, which is now over 100 acres. The fair grew from 10 days to 12, increased its efforts to close the gap between citizens and agriculture, and has continued to whole-heartedly support the exhibitors which are the “heart of the event.”
Allegany County Fair
On October 9, 1924 the “Cumberland Fair,” opened on a 100-acre site. The fairgrounds were constructed beneath the cliffs of Knobley Mountain, running alongside the Potomac River. The grounds included a large grandstand, clubhouse, jockey house, and paddock surrounding a half-mile racetrack. The horse races became the most popular draw for the crowds, bringing together the community during the two-week meet held in conjunction with the Cumberland Fair. The fair’s racing dates were sold to other tracks in 1962, and in 1967 cars took over the Cumberland racetracks. Car racing has continued each year since, when every Saturday from April to October, the fairgrounds are filled with sounds of stock car racing and cheering crowds.
Anne Arundel County Fair
Although it dates back to the 1950s, the Anne Arundel County Fair moved to its current 73-acre property in Crownsville in 1984. The land was purchased by the Department of Natural Resources and leased to the sponsors of the fair. It was a turning point for the fair, which was rebuilt with more investment, and provided more opportunities to grow.
Baltimore County 4-H Fair
The Baltimore County 4-H Fair was first held in 1964, at the Eudowood Plaza Shopping Center near Towson, MD. It was the vision of 4-H leaders and Extension Agent Norman Smith, who saw the fair as an opportunity for Baltimore County youth to showcase their indoor and livestock projects. After the success of the first year, the event was officially moved to the Maryland State Fairgrounds, where a fair board, headed by the first president William Langlotz, was also formed to plan and organize the event. In early years the livestock were housed in open air barns which were replaced with the current standing indoor arena known as the Cow Palace.
Calvert County Fair
During the early beginnings of the Calvert County Fair, which started in 1886, it was simply known as a get-together for local men to display their cattle and tobacco. Primarily a social event, it was held on the farm of Dr. Talbott in Smithville, which is now known as Dunkirk, and the farm still owned by his heirs to this day. The growth of the fair stalled during World War I because the surrounding farms were contributing to the war effort, but a new extension service and agricultural agent found support for continuing the fair so it could serve as a place for agricultural education and enjoyment. John Morsell, the county agent, had come out of the University of Maryland’s Agricultural Department and encouraged farmers to participate, assisting in the fair’s evolution into what it is today.
As the fair officials planned to increase the number and size of the exhibits, the fair’s location shifted from farm to farm in the center of the county. In 1940, Farm Bureau members decided it was time for the fair to find a permanent home and purchased nine acres, then three more, to increase the available space. In 1954, the cattle buildings burned down mysteriously, but the large exhibition hall remained standing. These grounds were used until the present location of today’s fair, which was established in Barstow.
Caroline-Dorchester County Fair
Originally known as the “Caroline County Fair,” the addition of “Dorchester” was added about a decade ago. Dorchester County, which borders Caroline County, contacted the Caroline County Fair with hopes to open up the agricultural fair experience for their own youth. Since Dorchester Co. did not have the space to offer a fair themselves, Caroline agreed to bring the two together as one wholesome county fair.
Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair
Compared to the magnificent number of exhibits and visitors that the fair sees today, its start was much smaller. It all began as an annual picnic that was held on August 14, 1897 at the Otterdale Schoolhouse, with the Cooperville Farmers Club. The morning began with a parade, preceded by the Taneytown Band, then a prayer and musical entertainment before lunch. In the afternoon, speakers from the Maryland Agriculture Institute addressed the crowd and updated farmers on the new institute. A committee determined that this day of celebration would become an annual event.
As attendance grew and the Carroll County Fair Association formed, the fair moved to a 141-acre tract in Taneytown where its facilities and exhibits grew, adding horse racing between 1922 and 1943. However, the fair fell on hard times and was not held between 1943 and 1945, resulting in the sale of the property. But with the commitment of 4-H leaders, the Carroll County 4-H Fair was organized and presented, with the first being held in 1947 at Big Pipe Creek in Taneytown. In 1954, the fair officially moved to the new Carroll County Agriculture Center, where it continues to be held.
Cecil County Fair
In 1953, members of Calvert, Cecilton, and Colora Granges met to discuss creating a fair. The founding members included Robert Carrion, Bill Groff, Walt Mason, and Ray Mueller, who was the Cecil County Agricultural Extension Agent at the time. The group approached Mr. William DuPont, who owned the property known today as the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area. Mr. DuPont was extremely supportive and helped share the expense of the fair in its first few years, even donating a grandstand and several outbuildings for exhibits and livestock.
The first fair was held in 1954 as a one-day event with free admission. There were approximately 752 entries from 204 open and 4-H exhibitors, with nearly 750 people in attendance. The midway only had two booths, one with a dart and balloon game and the containing the baseball and bottle game. A highlight included the calf scramble, which involved local kids attempting to chase and halter a calf from a running herd, with the winner choosing a calf to keep.
Between 1956 and 1995, the fair increased from two days to the nine days it is today. By 1970, the fair attendance was reaching nearly 20,000 visitors, calling for an increase in entertainment and events. In 1973, the tractor pull was added and in 1977, the popular Stoney Robert’s Demolition Derby was added. By the 1980s, fair attendance had reached an all-time high of nearly 50,000 attendees throughout the week.
Charles County Fair
While many typically think of livestock when hearing the word ‘stock’ in an agricultural setting, it has a different meaning for the Charles County Fair. First organized and incorporated in 1924, the fair-like event was held at Chapel Point, which was a bathing beach and amusement park owned and operated by the Catholic Church. In the fall, a group of interested farmers began to think of a real fair for Charles County, intending to secure land to host the event. They decided to organize a stock company which sold shares of stock, with a par value of $10. However, there was no promise to pay any dividends but rather have the investment be considered a donation to the cause. After two weeks and a promising sale total of $1,200, they proceeded with selling their stock to fund the future operation of the fairgrounds. In 1925, the board purchased the Spring Hill site, which only held a small tobacco barn and required a generator, which was operated by a farm tractor.
Surviving throughout the the years of the depression in the 1930s, the fair has prospered and grown, including the addition of five new livestock buildings in 2014 to replace those lost in 2013 due to a fire. Run by an all-volunteer fair board, the fair itself would not be possible without the dedicated work from the volunteer workers. All profits are put back into the fair to purchase new equipment and improve or construct new buildings.
The Great Frederick Fair
The Great Frederick Fair has withstood many years of hard times, only to continue to present itself as a monumental event in celebration of agriculture, education, and community. In May of 1822, a Cattle Show and Fair was held, spanning only two days, at George Creager’s Tavern. Participants entered their cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. Based in Frederick County’s tradition of high quality Thoroughbred breeding, there was an emphasis on equine categories. The fair was not held regularly, so the Frederick County Agricultural Society reformed in the spring of 1867, and purchased 21 acres of land to stand as the new home of the Agricultural Exhibition.
The fair’s growth over the decades stood as the ultimate transformation from simple cattle show to outstanding entertainment. The 9th annual fair honored national Civil War heroes such as President Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman, and members of the Presidential cabinet. President Grant was also part of the audience for the fair’s newest event, harness racing, which grew in popularity throughout the region and prompted the construction of a new grandstand in 1911. Upgrades continued throughout the century, with the midway known today coming into fruition during 1960, when rides became more popular. The Great Frederick Fair Inc. was established in 1971, and continues serving educational, agricultural, scientific, and horticultural purposes.
Garrett County Agriculture Fair
The first Garrett County Fair was held in 1917 in the Naylor Building on Third Street in Oakland, where sheds were constructed to house some of the exhibits. The fairs continued in the Naylor Building until interest in the fair increased and more space was needed. This led to the purchase of the Bradley property, where the fair was housed until 1931. While many of these fairs were held in September due to the availability of more farm products, the consistently bad weather caused lack of attendance and financial loss. The fifteenth annual Garrett County Fair held in 1932 was the last until 1957.
Meetings were held in 1954 to establish the first Garrett County Agriculture Fair, Inc. The first fair was held in August of 1957 on the property of Charles H. Bowman, near Deep Creek, MD. It originally only had one Quonset hut, with a few tents and temporary buildings to house the exhibits and animals. Officers of the fair board were elected and a board of directors was established with sixteen men and four women to serve four-year terms. Today, the fair is still held in its location near Deep Creek.
Harford County Farm Fair
Celebrating its 31st anniversary, the Harford County Farm Fair was created with the mission “to promote Harford County’s agricultural heritage and encourage youth involvement in agricultural activities, particularly through 4-H, FFA, and the Ag Magnet Program in Harford County Public Schools” (www.farmfair.org). Resurrecting the fair in 1988 was the vision of late Dr. Richard O. Cook and John O’Neil, who recruited the first board of directors. Back then, the fair was just three days, but has always been held at the Harford County Equestrian Center. The fair continues to stand as the longest running event in Harford County.
Hereford Junior Farm Fair
The Hereford Junior Farm Fair was founded by farmers Lionel Ensor, Waugh Matthews, and Principal Harry McDonald in 1945. It was hosted at the old Sparks High School. Ophelia Ensor Hollingshead, the daughter of one of the founders, said, “Back in 1945, there wasn’t a 4-H Fair, so the Junior Farm Fair gave youngsters a chance to practice prior to the Maryland State Fair.” Since its inception, it has grown to become one of the oldest and largest Junior Farm Fairs in the state. Thanks to many volunteers over the years, it has remained possible to provide a venue for youth to exhibit and educate themselves within the agriculture industry.
Howard County Fair
The Howard County Fair, a sea of bright lights, crowds of people, and whirring rides when driving along Interstate 70 in early August, has stood as a prominent staple in the community for 73 years. However, it was not always a fair. It started as the Farm Bureau Picnic, which was held annually at Brendel’s Manor Park as a celebration of the harvest, and a chance to engage in contests of friendly rivalry. As the event’s popularity grew, members of Pomona Grange, the Farm Bureau and those previously involved with the Landowners and Farmers Field Day at the Howard County Hunt Club decided it was time to transform the picnic into a fair. The first annual fair was held in 1946 in the same location as the previous picnics, spanned two days and ended with a profit of $2000. Once the question of “Does Howard County really need a Fair?” was completely discussed among the fair board and community, it was decided that the annual fair would be held on a permanent basis.
After its time held at Brendel’s Manor Park, the fair moved to Ellicott City High School in 1947, and then to Laurel Raceway between 1948 and 1949. During its time at the Raceway, considered the “Raceway Years,” livestock shows were held in conjunction with harness racing. It was not until 1953 that the fair finally found its home, in its current location in West Friendship.
Kent County Fair
The Kent County fairgrounds were originally home to a U.S. Army Nike missile facility. The facility contained barracks, a guard shack and a base office, which now houses the Fair office.
The Great Pocomoke Fair
Started in 1901, the Great Pocomoke Fair represented a true community event. The fair was intended as a celebration of the fruits of harvest, the handiwork of farmwives and the ability of farmers to raise blue-ribbon quality cattle, swine, and poultry. Horse racing was the fair’s biggest draw. Harness racing drew trotters from Washington, D.C. to Melfa, V.A., and participants in the four days of racing saw fields as large as 12 horses. The fair ceased operations for a while during the Great Depression.
Montgomery County Agricultural Fair
4-H was the inspiration for the start of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, when an initial meeting of 4-H leaders occurred in March of 1945, with hopes of providing a platform for 4-H members to exhibit their prize livestock, garden, and home economics projects to the community. During its first years between 1945 and 1948, local community members donated their time and efforts to provide the 4-H and FFA kids with the opportunity to compete with their projects. The shows were held on borrowed property with prizes financially supported by the Maryland State Fair Board, and all advertising and physical set-up managed by the parents of the competitors. Once the Montgomery County Agricultural Center, Inc., was formed in 1949, it purchased 64 acres adjacent to successful farmer Herman Rabbitt’s land in Gaithersburg. The physical complex of the new Montgomery County Agricultural Center was created in one day, with an old-fashioned barn raising and construction of 12 buildings completed by volunteers.
Prince George’s County Fair
With such a prestigious name, it seems only fitting that the Prince George’s County Fair, started in 1842, is also the state’s longest running fair. It began simply as a friendly gathering for local farmers to showcase their produce and have fun. As it grew, it came to include women’s arts, with competitions for the best jams, jellies, canned goods, pies, breads, cookies, clothing, quilts and handicrafts. It was, and still is, quite an honor to be deemed the ‘best in the county.’
Queen Anne County Fair
Recorded in the Extension Office’s 1941 yearly report, there were plans set by older 4-H youth to secure a permanent 4-H site to hold agricultural events. This started the process of creating the Queen Anne County Fair, which began to take shape with a donated parcel of 28.26 acres from George M. Moffett of Blakefield Farms. Work began in April of 1942, under the guidance of county-elected leaders, with the help of local volunteers and an allotment of $400 from the Maryland State Fair board. On August 15th, 1942, the first Queen Anne’s County 4-H Club Fair took place with 900 in attendance and $670 collected in donations for park improvements. The final deed for the land to become the Queen Anne’s County 4-H Park was completed during November of that year, reading “for the use only for agricultural activities with 4-H Club work preference.”
St. Mary’s County Fair
Established in 1947, St. Mary’s County held the first two county fairs on rented grounds at Camp Calvert on Breton Bay in Leonardtown. It was not until 1949 that a permanent home for the fair was seriously considered, supported by the St. Mary’s County Government, which leased property to the St. Mary’s County Association for this purpose. In 1963, the St. Mary’s County Fair was integrated, ending the practice of holding separate fairs.
Somerset County Fair
As the Somerset County Fair heads into its 75th year, the fair board continues to stay true to the agricultural traditions that are important to the Eastern Shore, such as livestock, crop and vegetables, food preservation, horticulture, and home arts and crafts.
Talbot County Fair
The First Annual Fair of the Talbot County Fair Association was held in September of 1886. Offering a total of $5,400 in premiums, it was the “First Annual Exhibition of Agricultural and Mechanical Exhibits, and Display of Livestock” intended to attract residents from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Livestock judging was based on “symmetry, early maturity, size and general quality characteristics of the breed.” Fair admission was 50¢, or 75¢ for one person on horseback, and 50¢ to admit a four-horse vehicle. Men were required to pay $1.00 to enter an exhibition, while women and children paid 50¢. Horse shows were popular, with categories including Roadster and Light Harness, Coach and General Purposes, Heavy Draft, Thoroughbreds, Miscellaneous Horses and Mares and Mules (Information provided by the Talbot Historical Society).
Washington County Fair
Beginning in 1981, the event was originally known as the Great Hagerstown Fair and was held at Fairgrounds Park. The event was eventually moved seven miles down the road from Hagerstown where it is currently held.
Wicomico County Fair
Starting in 1936, The Wicomico Farm and Home Show was developed by local farmers and businesses to compete and show off their achievements. They competed in categories such as baked goods, canned goods, woodworking projects, produce and livestock. Although its first home was the Eastern Shore Baseball League field, it continuously shifted around the area. In 1942, the fair was not held due to the United States’ Army’s need for an Armory location. After its break, the fair was also held at the old auction block and the old Civic Center on Glen Avenue, until it burnt down. Once the Civic Center was rebuilt, it was held there until its relocation to WinterPlace Park, where it is now held annually.
In 2015, after 78 years of being known as the “Wicomico Farm and Home Show,” the fair joined forces with the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce to create the Wicomico County Fair. Together, the groups have a combined 143-year history.
Worcester County Fair
The Worcester County Fair is steeped in tradition, dating back to its start in 1963. For over 50 years, the fair was held annually in the second week of August. In 2017 concerns about the high heat index caused the fair to move to June.