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Dayhoff: Annual Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair steeped in history and tradition

A “program of events” found in an 1871 publication of the American Sentinel, refers to a “Grand Exhibition of Farm machinery under the auspices of the Carroll County Agriculture Society on the Fair Grounds, Westminster, MD…”
A “program of events” found in an 1871 publication of the American Sentinel, refers to a “Grand Exhibition of Farm machinery under the auspices of the Carroll County Agriculture Society on the Fair Grounds, Westminster, MD…” (Courtesy of “Legacy of the Land” by Carol Lee)

This year’s annual Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair at the Agriculture Center officially runs from July 27 through Aug. 2.

On Tuesday, July 16, local agriculture historian, Andy Cashman, the longstanding Maryland State Fair manager, gave a talk on the history of agricultural fairs for the Historical Society of Carroll County Box Lunch Talk (BLT.)

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End of summer harvest festivals and “fairs” are a tradition that is as old as the history of agriculture. In the United States, before 1865, the business of farming was, for the most part, a subsistence existence.

Economic historians note that it was the period between 1865 and 1900 when there was intense agricultural unrest in the country which had profound economic and political repercussions that remain a part of public policy to this day. Historian Carol Lee, the author of “Legacy of the Land,” refers to this period in Carroll County, from 1861–1895, as the “Long Depression.”

The first mention of an actual Carroll County "fair" seems to have been in 1869. However, Dr. Joshua Hering describes, in a history of Westminster, "Recollections," that in the days immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863, "A temporary camp was made in a field on the 'Fairground Hill,' immediately to the left of the turnpike."

Certainly an agriculture based community such as Carroll County had harvest "fairs" before 1869? Surprisingly no research at this point supports that premise. Why this area, northeast of Colonial Avenue and East Main Street, was called "Fairground Hill" as early as 1863 remains a mystery.

Historian Nancy Warner writes in her book, "Carroll County Maryland, A History," that on Jan. 11, 1869, the Carroll County Agricultural Society was organized "at a meeting at the Court House… [Subsequently] Thirty acres of land was bought between the present location of Fair Street and Malcolm Drive…"

It is believed that the first fair after the January 1869 meeting took place that year on July 4. Several years later, a "program of events" found in an 1871 publication of the American Sentinel, refers to a "Grand Exhibition of Farm machinery under the auspices of the Carroll County Agriculture Society on the Fair Grounds, Westminster, MD…"

President Ulysses Grant visited the Carroll County Agricultural Fair on Oct. 2, 1873, according to Catherine Baty, the curator of collections at the Historical Society of Carroll County.

Nancy Warner notes in her book that," Grant "arrived in Westminster at 12:30 p.m. for a 'day at the fair.' After a reception at the railroad depot the president, waited upon by the mayor and City Council, visited the fair, toured the town… the Western Maryland College grounds… At 5:20 p.m. the president's train left Westminster for Baltimore."

According to a history published in the 1997 Carroll County Fair Guide, the current version of the fair celebrates its roots going back to a picnic held Aug. 14, 1897 at the Otterdale Schoolhouse, in Taneytown.

The current fair’s website reports, “In the morning there was a parade to the Goulden’s Grove, preceded by the Taneytown Band, then had prayer and music before lunch. In the afternoon speakers from the Maryland Agriculture Institute were asked to address the crowd and bring the farmers up to date on the new institute. … By July 29, 1899, 2,000 attended and a “WELCOME” arch was erected at the approach which remained a tradition at the entrance of the fair for years to come.”

According to Cashman, in those days the fair progressed “From seven acres of carriages in Goulden’s Grove to July 30, 1904 when 2000 automobiles came to the event [at a subsequent location at] Ohler’s Grove…”

The fair moved to Westminster in 1954, to what we now know as the Carroll County Agriculture Center, which was established as a private organization on March 20, 1954. At the time, the land was purchased at the end of an old dirt farm lane off Gist Road, way outside of town, by visionary local farmers and community leaders.

The annual fair is a favorite topic of mine — and portions of this discussion have been published before. For more information on the annual Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair, and this year’s fair schedule, go to carrollcountyfair.com. For more information on the Maryland State Fair, go to marylandstatefair.com

The Historical Society Box Lunch Talk (BLT) program attracts scores of local history enthusiasts every month. These hour-long events begin promptly at noon on the third Tuesday of every month in Grace Hall, Grace Lutheran Church; 21 Carroll Street, Westminster: gracelc.org. Free parking is available in the lot on Carroll Street.

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To see the current Historical Society BLT schedule, check out the calendar online: hsccmd.org/programs-and-events, or give the Historical Society a call at 410-848-6494.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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