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Dayhoff: This year’s traditional county fair decidedly nontraditional

Preparations being made for the Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair in the early 1950s at the fair’s present location. The hill in the background is now a housing development. The current fair moved to Westminster in 1954, to the Carroll County Agriculture Center, which was established as a private organization on March 20, 1954 on land at the end of an old dirt lane off Gist Road. The photo is taken from the Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair July 1997 program book, "Carroll County Fair 1897 – 1997, Celebrating 100 Years.”
Preparations being made for the Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair in the early 1950s at the fair’s present location. The hill in the background is now a housing development. The current fair moved to Westminster in 1954, to the Carroll County Agriculture Center, which was established as a private organization on March 20, 1954 on land at the end of an old dirt lane off Gist Road. The photo is taken from the Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair July 1997 program book, "Carroll County Fair 1897 – 1997, Celebrating 100 Years.” (Courtesy Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair)

Ever since the late-1800s, the end of July and the beginning of August has been the highlight of the agriculture community’s calendar. This is traditionally when the county agricultural fair has taken place in Carroll County.

This year’s 123rd annual Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair is happening in an abbreviated form, from Aug. 1-8. According to the fair’s web site, “Due to the COVID 19, the Carroll County 4-H FFA Fair Board made a tough decision this year to host our 123rd fair only for exhibitors and their immediate family members.

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“This decision disappoints both the Fair Board and exhibitors. We will hold our annual Livestock sale Friday, August 7th. Please click the 2020 Livestock Button … to register and for additional information on filling your freezer and supporting a 4-Her. We want to thank the sponsors who continue to show their support for the Fair. We also hope to see everyone back next year!”

According to a recent article in the Carroll County Times by Catalina Righter, “To cut down the number of people in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the fair is closed to the public this year. The fair executive board deliberated for a long time before settling on a solution they hoped would give the kids a chance to showcase their projects while keeping safety in mind.

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“While the judging and many of the exhibits will go ahead, as they have in some form since 1897, the entertainment, and food will not be a part of the occasion this year. A typical fair draws 50,000 people per week to the Ag Center grounds, said Jim Weishaar, chair of the fair board.”

The current fair celebrates its roots going back to a picnic held Aug. 14, 1897 at the Otterdale Schoolhouse, in Taneytown, according to a history published in the 1997 fair guide.

The fair moved to Westminster in 1954, to the Ag Center, which was established as a private organization on March 20, 1954, by a group of visionary leaders according to retired extension agent Robert L. Jones.

To the best of my research at present, the first mention of the Carroll County “fair” occurs tangentially in the days immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863. In “Recollections,” Dr. Joshua Hering describes, “A temporary camp was made in a field on the ‘Fairground Hill,’ immediately to the left of the turnpike.”

Why this area, northeast of Colonial Avenue and East Main Street was called “Fairground Hill” as early as 1863 remains a mystery to be further researched.

Before 1865, the business of farming was, for the most part, a subsistence existence. Farmers were essentially self-sufficient. But after the Civil War, farmers became increasingly “dependent on creditors, merchants, and railroads for their livelihoods. These relationships created opportunities for economic gain but also obligations, hardships, and risks that many farmers did not welcome,” notes agriculture historian James I. Stewart of Reed College.

Certainly an agrarian-based community such as Carroll County had harvest “fairs” before the 1860s? The first authoritative mention of an organized fair event occurs in 1869.

Historian Nancy Warner writes in her book, “Carroll County Maryland, A History,” on Jan. 11, 1869, the Carroll County Agricultural Society was organized “at a meeting at the Court House.”

“Capital of $25,000 was raised through the sale of 500 shares of stock at $50.00 per share. Thirty acres of land was bought between the present Fair Street and Malcolm Drive…”

It is believed that the first fair after the January 1869 meeting took place that year on July 4. 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 ...”

For 2020, according to the Carroll County Times, “The livestock sale, set for Friday, Aug. 7 at 5:30 p.m., will be the only part of the fair that’s open to the public, in a modified way. Some buyers will be able to preregister to attend in person and others can do so virtually. The income from this sale is vital for many exhibitors to offset the cost of feed and supplies and hopefully go toward next year’s project.

“This is the first year the sale will be streamed live online. Weishaar said that if all goes well, that might become a permanent part of the event. Some families have said it will let family members from far away participate.

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“The fair board had considered live-streaming the livestock shows throughout the week, but found that hiring a company to do so would have been too expensive during a year when the fair is bringing in very little revenue, Weishaar said.

“The annual cake auction was one of the events that won’t go forward this year. Some of the groups who pool their resources to make larger donations to the fair in the form of cake auctions bids have reached out and asked how they can support the fair. Donations can be made by emailing the fair staff at cc4hffafairmanager@gmail.com or by calling 410-848-3247.”

More information about this year’s fair is available at www.carrollcountyfair.com/index.asp.

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