Carnival at Harford County Farm Fair could well be a good thing [Editorial]

For 25 years, the Farm Fair has been one of the most well-attended events in Harford County, owing to the organizers' success at ensuring the fair is a bargain that features plenty of exhibits, activities and attractions.

Over the years, organizers also managed to secure many substantial donations that have brought infrastructure improvements to the Harford County Equestrian Center on Tollgate Road in Bel Air. As a result, the equestrian center is not only the county's de facto fairgrounds, but also something of a destination venue for dozens of riding events throughout the year.

The many facilities at the equestrian center that have come into being, thanks to the persistence of the organizers of the farm fair, also contribute to the facility being home to one of the largest annual gatherings of Cub Scouts in Maryland, the annual Harford District Cub Scout Day Camp.

The Farm Fair and the equestrian center have grown up together and benefited from each other, and it has all happened without the benefit of what is the mainstay of many agricultural fairs across America, a carnival midway.

That is going to change with this year's Farm Fair, the 26th edition of the event, and there are reasons for having mixed emotions about that change.

Given that Harford County's rural roots have been growing for far longer than the quarter of a century the Farm Fair has been around, it might appear to the casual observer that the fair tradition should have been in place a good deal longer than 25 years. Actually, there has been a fair for a lot longer than 25 years.

By the 1930s, the Harford County Fair in Bel Air was a well-established October tradition. By the early-1960s, however, the fair was flagging and soon gone, as the adjoining race track closed and the fairgrounds became available for the future commercial development that became Harford Mall.

The demise of the event meant more than just crossing an event off the calendar, as the fair lived on the memories of many who remembered it with fondness..

A group of volunteers, led by Dr. Richard O. "Doc" Cook, got together in the mid-1980s with the idea of building a county fair around the agriculturally oriented 4-H Club and other youth organizations rooted in agriculture.

4-H clubs date to organizations that formed in the late 1800s known as corn clubs. Boys who were members of these clubs would compete to score the best corn yield, with the winners taking prizes. By the early 1900s, they had become more formalized as 4-H clubs, with the H's standing for head, heart, hands and health in the youth organization's pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country and my world."

Many of the early organizers of what would become the first Farm Fair, Cook foremost among them, regarded the carnival midway tradition as something of a distraction from the agricultural aspects of the fair. They wanted to put agriculture front and center, hence the name Farm Fair, as opposed to simply Harford County Fair. Among the key attractions over the years have been activities like racing pigs, tractor pulls and performers with a decidedly country feel about them.

Importantly, 4-H exhibits ranging from photographs to prize hogs are prominently displayed at the Farm Fair, consuming a substantial amount of the equestrian center's indoor and semi-indoor territory. The annual 4-H livestock auction is a major event.

It was a very successful formula for a very long time, but in more recent years, it has proven increasingly difficult to sustain the levels of crowds drawn in the early years of the Farm Fair. In an effort to add something a little different, Farm Fair organizers included a carnival on last year's agenda, though it was scheduled for the week before the fair itself, and the weather made the event something of a washout.

This year, it's hoped the addition of a carnival midway will help reinvigorate the fair, both in terms of attendance and finance.

In a way, given the distractions from agriculture that come with a carnival midway, it's kind of sad to see the change.

In a way, however, carnival midways have long been part of the county fair tradition, as integral as prize hogs, hot dogs and farm queens.

The writer E.B. White expressed this sentiment with his typical elegance and economy of language in his timeless novel "Charlotte's Web," whose youthful themes belie plenty of adult lessons. It is, of course, the story of how Charlotte the spider uses her web-weaving skills to spell out words over Wilbur the pig's pen, thus saving the young animal from the dinner table.

It also, however, is the story of Fern Arable, Wilbur's human friend and observer of the fanciful world of talking spiders, pigs, rats and geese. She quietly takes in the story, but as the story draws to a conclusion at the fair, she becomes increasingly interested in a boy who also is coming of age, Henry Fussy. While at the fair, a key moment in Fern's young life comes when Henry buys her a ticket to ride the Ferris wheel on the midway and draws her away, if only for a short time, from Wilbur's world.

Mr. White concludes the chapter on the departure from the fair: "As they passed the Ferris wheel, Fern gazed up at it and wished she were in the topmost car with Henry Fussy at her side."

Certainly, the Ferris wheel is a distraction from agriculture for Fern, but it is a pleasant, and fairly wholesome, distraction.

It would be easy to decry the addition of a carnival midway to the Farm Fair, especially considering the reasons one had been avoided for so long.

It may well be, however, that the Farm Fair has just grown up a little bit, like Fern Arable, and is less in danger of losing its agricultural roots than it may have been when it was younger.

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