As a few dozen people watched appreciatively, an antique threshing machine rumbled to life at the Howard County Fair yesterday: a collection of belts, spinning wheels, filters and fans that sent wheat kernels spilling down a chute on one side and chaff flying out the end into a pile on the ground.
"Fifty years ago, this was the modern method of separating wheat from straw," said Art Boone, of Ellicott City, using a bullhorn to be heard over the noise.
The Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club has brought the old-time threshing demonstration to the fair for a number of years, offering visitors a taste of farming from a time when Howard County was a rural landscape untouched by suburbia.
The machinery is "part of the original agriculture of Howard County," said Brice Ridgely, who owns the thresher and is a member of the club. "Howard County originated in agriculture."
The demonstration is just one way the fair, in its 58th year, focuses on traditional farming activities.
Like fairs throughout the country, Howard County's has had to change with the times. Through Saturday, it will offer amusement rides and entertainment. It will have 10 shows to accommodate a booming interest in horses in the county and offer a 4-H contest for rocketry. It even will let people enter home-arts contests by e-mail.
But in some areas, the Howard County Fair has held on to rural themes and fair traditions.
The farm machinery club will demonstrate the Huber threshing machine again today at 4 p.m. The thresher is run by a 50-foot belt attached to a modern tractor (standing in for a steam-powered tractor that would have been used at the time). During the demonstration, two club members toss in wheat cut on Ridgely's farm and other club members use a stationary bailer to compress the straw into rectangular bundles.
The club will have decades-old tractors, tools and machines on display all week near the fairgrounds entrance.
"You certainly have the older people who want to see the old agriculture equipment we bring out there," Ridgely said.
The threshing demonstration took Carole Nusbaum of Pasadena back to her childhood on a 30-acre farm in Randallstown. When she looked at the old machinery, Nusbaum, 59, said, "I can still see my father."
She recalled riding horses, picking corn and tomatoes for dinner and making peach ice cream as a child and said, "every kid should live on a farm for a year. ... "We had a wonderful time. ... It was a fun life."
Throughout the fair, organizers hope to capture a similar sense of tradition and fun.
Today, there will be a pie-eating contest in which young people gobble down slices as fast as they can without using their hands. A pretty-animal contest will combine creativity and pets. And a cow-milking contest will demonstrate an important skill from when the county had more than 200 dairy farms.
Livestock shows still bring cattle, swine and lambs in front of judges in the show ring, with poultry, rabbits and goats among more recent additions.
"Howard County has changed," Ridgely said. "It is certainly not the way I remember it when we all had dairy cattle and beef cattle, and we all competed against each other."
But as animal-show competition among farmers has waned, the 4-H program has continued to thrive.
Last year, Howard County had the most 4-H participants in the state, said L. Martin Hamilton Jr., a state cooperative extension educator. At this year's fair, 4-H participants entered 251 market pigs, 150 market lambs, 76 beef steers and many other animals for competition - numbers that are up a little from last year.
"That [increase] really is out of character for an urban area," Hamilton said.
He added, "99.9 percent of 4-H participants do not come from a farming background."
But families get interested in the program and find ways to keep just a few animals, keep animals on other people's property or lease them.
The events help the youth learn responsibility, organization and presentation skills, Hamilton said.
And "it certainly gives the people that aren't familiar with [agriculture] a place to come and learn what the various types of livestock are, what they look like, how you care for them," said fair President Vaughn Turner.
A new petting zoo and animal education center will offer more opportunities for the public to see animals up close.
Home arts also remain strong at the fair, Turner said. People in Howard and surrounding counties are still exhibiting quilts, canning, baking and sewing, he said.
They have also welcomed more entries in fine arts, film and digital photography, and woodworking to accommodate people's interests.
The balance of old and new seems to be a successful one.
In August last year, the fair has its largest attendance ever, including a one-day record of between 11,000 and 12,000 visitors on Wednesday of fair week.
Turner explained at the time that even though the percentage of people in the county involved in agriculture is shrinking, the overall growth in population helps boost the number of visitors who want to see what it is all about.
"We're trying to keep some of it alive for the children," Ridgely said.
He hopes they will realize "that's the way their grandparents came up in Howard County."