Md. State Fair wraps with fashion shows, birthing sows

What 11-year-old Christa Stargill wanted to do most on the last day of the 2011 Maryland State Fair wasn't to ride the giant slide or to eat an ice cream cone or even to attend an informative discussion about bedbugs.

No, what the little girl from Washington wanted to do more than anything was to hang around the Swine Barn waiting for a mother sow to give birth to a litter of piglets.

"Christa, let's go," said her mother, Lisa Stargill. "It could be another three hours. We can't stay here all day."

Still, Christa lingered, pressing her face against the vertical bars of the cage housing the birthing enclosure. She watched as Thomas Hartsock, a retired animal husbandry professor from the University of Maryland, gently stroked the sow's udder while providing color commentary.

"That should make her turn over," to her other side, Hartsock said. "But if she bites me, I'll end up sitting on your lap."

The Baltimore area was a study in entertainment contrasts this weekend. Toward the south, the city held its first Grand Prix auto race at the Inner Harbor. To the north, the region celebrated the 130th Maryland State Fair.

At the Grand Prix, autos roared through city streets at upward of 170 miles an hour. At the State Fair, an entrant in the Swifty Swines could take three, four minutes to amble around a backyard-sized course.

"We're a completely different kind of event, and we attract a different audience," said Max Mosner, the fair's general manager. "I don't think they hurt our attendance. I don't think we hurt them."

Though Mosner doesn't yet have final attendance figures, he expects the overall number of visitors to the fair this year was down, primarily because Hurricane Irene shut down the fair for much of its first weekend. Overcast skies and periods of rain on Labor Day also kept the crowds lower than normal.

The Grand Prix had many unique attractions, but it couldn't boast the talents of Marty Long, an artist based in Phoenixville, Pa., who fascinated passers-by by sculpting fish, birds, mammals and garden benches from white pine using just a chain saw.

Long trained as a chef and got his start creating ice sculptures, he told the crowd, before turning to the textured edge created by steel teeth. Before spectators' eyes, an open-mouthed fish emerged from a tree stump. A raccoon arched his back, and a bear stood on two hind legs.

About 30 of his creations were auctioned off at the fair, with the proceeds used to create $2,000 college scholarships that will be awarded to high school seniors. One item – a garden bench flanked by two horse heads – generated spirited bidding before being sold for $1,000.

The Grand Prix might have had an interactive booth where kids could create their own prize medals. But it didn't have a demonstration area where a 12-year-old could craft a Christmas ornament for her older sister – and in the process conduct a chemistry experiment.

Ruby Spreche of Timonium poured a small beaker of polyvinyl alcohol into a cup, then colored the liquid with two drops of green food coloring. Then she added to it sodium borate – a compound found in eyewashes – and began to stir.

Gradually, the mixture thickened. The more Ruby stirred, the more solid it became. Finally, a translucent green ball formed that looked as though it was meant to dangle on a fir tree.

Ruby left with two ornaments, one red and one green, and a fact sheet that explained how two transparent liquids had formed such a strong bond.

"I've seen other people do things like this before," she said, "but I've never been able to make that reaction myself."

At the Grand Prix, the roar from the motors made earplugs a mandatory fashion statement.

At the State Fair, 17-year-old Cynthia Garner applied a trace of last-minute lipstick before participating in a ready-to-wear fashion show that featured garments that had been bought on sale.

With her strapless, above-the-knee black floral dress ($9), wide-brimmed lilac straw hat ($1) and lilac leather slides (a gift), it certainly didn't appear that Cynthia's entire outfit cost less money than a ticket to a first-run film.

"To me, there's nothing like the State Fair," said Cynthia's mother, Marie Garner, 54, of Halethorpe.

"It's part of America. There truly is something for everyone."

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