The folks at the Maryland State Fair are putting on their show for the 135th time this year, and they've gotten pretty good at it.
For generations of Marylanders, a summer pilgrimage to Timonium has been an annual tradition — a sure way to have fun, eat well (not always healthily, but well) and get a sampling of what life in the Free State is all about. From steamed crabs to stolen kisses, from thrill rides to the thundering hooves of thoroughbred racehorses, trips to the state fair are always a guaranteed good time.
But while the state fair is steeped in tradition, it's far from a slave to it. Sure, some of the fair's features haven't changed much since your grandmom was a little girl, but some have. Fair organizers understand that updating the fair is important, if only to ensure that the experience doesn't become stale and absolutely predictable. So, yeah, in many ways, this is your mom and dad's state fair. But in some key aspects, it's not that at all.
Here's a look at what should promise to be some of the fair's highlights — five happily traditional, five proving it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
More than 30 rides (45, if you include the kiddie rides), more than 30 games of skill. Check out the Ferris wheel, stand alongside your young sons and daughters as they take a spin on the merry-go-round, enjoy the adrenaline rushes that accompany The Enterprise, Hang Ten, Yoo and Cliff Hanger. Then see how good you are at sinking free throws, fooling the guesser, taking careful aim with a water pistol or tossing balls into a milk can. Hey, this has been the definition of a summer good time longer than any of us can remember. 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays (kiddie rides open at noon), 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day (Sept. 5).
A staple for decades, the Grand Parade was last held in 1981, marking the fair's 100th edition. Happily, it's back this year, promising an array of bands, floats, horses, antique cars, color guards and who knows what else, all marching in proud celebration of one of Maryland's most festive traditions. Such joy, and pomp. 6 p.m. Sunday at the racetrack grandstand, then parading around the track.
Maryland's best livestock and agriculture
For well over a century, this has been the essence of our state fair (and of just about every state fair, for that matter) — showing off the finest animals, vegetables, crafts and other farm and household-related items that Maryland has to offer. City folks may be stunned by all the giant pumpkins, tomatoes riper and redder than you'd ever thought possible, cows that look big enough to keep your local McDonald's stocked for a year, and pigs the size of Mack Trucks (well, close enough). And that doesn't even take into account the adorable baby chicks, the cows giving birth, the expertly trained horses or the strawberries large enough to feed a small town. Such stuff has been defining "cool" for generations. On display throughout the fair, in the Cow Palace, Horse Show Ring, Sheep & Swine Barns, Poultry & Rabbit Area and Farm & Garden Building.
There was horse racing in Timonium even before there was a fair, as far back as 1831. While thoroughbred racing at the fairgrounds has diminished greatly over the years — what was once a season that extended over several weeks is now restricted to just two weekends — it's still there, and still thrilling. And best of all, watching the ponies is free once you pay your fair admission. Betting, of course, is far from free, but we'll leave the extent of that to your discretion. Post time is 1 p.m. Fridays-Sundays and Labor Day at the racetrack.
Maryland State Fair Museum
Ribbons, souvenirs, programs and photographs from 135 years of Maryland's state fair. If they piped in Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes, it would feel just like going to the fair back in your grandparents' day. It's not a big museum, nor unduly crowded, and that's the joy. Wander at your own pace, and marvel at how things have changed — or haven't. (Donations of any fair memorabilia you may have dug out of your grandma's attic are welcome.) Open throughout the duration of the fair, in the Miller Mosner Building.
Charlie Puth concert
Chances are good that, if you're over 30, you've never even heard of this guy. But if you're among the younger crowd — well, that's a different story. Puth's been making music out of L.A. for about two years now, and he's already got a handful of hits, including "See You Again," "One Call Away" and "Marvin Gaye" (with Meghan Trainor). His accolades include a couple of Teen Choice Awards, two American Music Awards and an MTV Video Music Award. "It's soulful music, with a bit of hip-hop, and lyrics that hopefully everyone can relate to," Puth says of his music. Want to know if you'll like it? Ask your kids. (It's worth noting that the big concerts at the fair have often skewed younger — last year's acts included Fifth Harmony, and a few years back, a young Justin Bieber, in the early stages of Biebermania, took the stage in Timonium.) 8 p.m. Sept. 3, on the racetrack infield. $50 (includes fair admission).
Swifty Swine Racing and Swimming Pig Show
True, Swifty Swine pig racing has been a state fair staple for 13 years, so it's not exactly new. But this year's sprinting porkers have been ripped right from the headlines — the big-named competitors include "Hillary Rodham Clinton" (get it, Rod-HAM?) and "Donald Trumproast." Nothing says 2016 louder than pitting those two against one another. Daily at 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., on the midway near the Farm & Garden Building.
Home Brew Division
There was a time during the fair's storied past that what's being celebrated here would have been called moonshine (or something like it) and landed you in jail. But 80-plus years after the end of Prohibition, and Maryland's agricultural showcase is finally getting back in the alcohol business. The fair has added a Home Brew Division, offering ribbons in the lager, pilsner, bock, IPA, ale, porter stout, wheat, fruit and specialty beer classes. You won't find Natty Boh (not only is it made by pros, but it's no longer brewed here in the Free State), but there should be plenty of other fine beers to pick up the slack. On display in the Farm & Garden Building throughout the duration of the fair.
Skype sessions and YouTube sensations
Twenty-first-century technology is definitely making its presence known at the fair. First, "YouTube sensations" the Peterson Farm Brothers, whose farm-themed parodies of popular songs (think "Gangnam Style" turned "Farmer Style") have received millions of views, will be honored guests for the crowning of Miss Maryland Agriculture (the winner, chosen from the state's 23 counties, will receive a $13,000 prize package). And elsewhere during the fair, for the first time, Maryland farmers can interact with fairgoers from their farms, thanks to the wonders of Skype. It's called Farmer's In, and the possibilities seem endless. The Miss Maryland Agriculture selection begins with a fundraising dinner at 7 p.m. Friday, followed by the competition finals at 8 p.m. $25. Cow Palace Show Ring. The Skype sessions will be running 2 p.m.-4 p.m. daily as part of the U-Learn Farm, at the south end of the Cow Palace.
Pokemon Go Day