Evolving fare at the fair


Five-year-old Mairin O'Connell was pleased with her first foray into art competition at the Howard County Fair yesterday.

"I won a ribbon, I won a ribbon," she told her parents, Brendan and Debbie O'Connell of Dayton, hopping up and down and pointing to the third-place ribbon attached to her drawing.

She said she has participated in the pretty animal contest before, but "I wanted to enter a new contest." She made her crayon drawing of deer, trees, hill and a "magic river" the day entries were due.

That enthusiastic response is exactly what organizers like to see in the Home Arts Department as they seek to entice more people to compete in hundreds of food preparation, art, craft and baking categories for ribbons and prize money.

With animal shows and vegetable judging, home arts are a traditional part of country fairs. Years ago, most fairs decided "to have some competition for the ladies while the guys are out there with their cows," said Carolyn Kulp, one of the three Home Arts Department superintendents.

The department evolves each year. In recent years, it added salsa as a category in food processing, made room for digital photography and expanded the woodworking section.

The newest addition to the department was an interlocking building block contest, held yesterday, in which participants were invited to start with 150 blocks and see what they could build in an hour and a half. Five young people used plastic blocks and Lincoln Logs to make houses, space vehicles and a carnival ride.

It was a chance for young people to compete in public even if they don't have animals, Kulp said.

Some home arts categories involve traditional skills needed for life on a farm. Visitors can still see entries in quilting, sewing, canning and baking. "Now [participants] do it for their pleasure rather than their necessity," said Madeleine Greene, a cooperative extension educator for family and consumer sciences.

"Spinning is very relaxing," said Mary Ann Jackson of Woodbine, who judged the spinning and weaving categories. It is also a good way to get together with other people, she said. And weaving is fun because it involves solving puzzles and creating patterns.

Fine arts have remained popular since the fair began, said Pauline Hood of Lisbon. She has been helping with the category for 47 years. Some people enter year after year, she said. "If your work is not there, people are disappointed."

This year, she entered an oil painting of two miniature horses and a cat from her farm. As in every category, the entries are judged with the names hidden.

In art categories for young people, everyone gets to take home a ribbon for participating, said Charlotte Mullinix, a fair volunteer from Woodbine. The entrants "seem enthusiastic and excited when they bring [their art work] in," she said. The Home Arts building has a lot of traffic Sunday when people rush in to see if they won."

Participation in categories goes through phases, Kulp said. "It ebbs and flows." When a critical mass of one type of item collects in miscellaneous - such as sauerkraut or computer-generated art - organizers will make a new category.

As with the crop departments, the number of entries in home arts is affected by the weather. This year, they are down overall, Kulp said. She speculated that an extra week of school cut into people's time to prepare entries for the fair and rearranged vacation schedules so some regular entrants are out of town this week.

At the same time, Kulp says an increase in the number of knitted projects and needlework could be related to snowstorms that kept people indoors this past winter.

Kulp said baking is dependent on the weather near fair time because cookies, cakes and pies need to be made fresh for judging. This year's cooler temperatures seem to have encouraged more bakers to spend time in hot kitchens, with nearly 50 entries in the apple pie and apple dessert contests among nearly 500 entries in 103 categories.

Toni Smith, who moved to Silver Spring 2 1/2 years ago, was excited to see the baking contests when she visited the Howard County Fair for the first time last year. She used to enter pies at a fair in rural Idaho, where she grew up.

"I learned from my grandma," she said.

She did not take home a ribbon this time, but she was still impressed with her fair experience. "This is more like what I'm used to," she said. "Everyone here is nice. It's a homier fair."

Processed food categories were hurt by the heavy rain Maryland received this spring, said Martha Embrey, chairwoman of that section.

Blackberries have not come in, raspberries did not do well and strawberries rotted in the rain, she said, so jams and jellies were few.

The number of entries in tatting, which involves creating doilies and other decorative items by knotting string with a shuttle or needle, had gotten very small, Kulp said. But Donna McGinn and Tracy Michel, neighbors from Ellicott City, decided to learn to tat this year, and entered their projects, winning several ribbons.

"One of the best things to do is to enter," Greene said. In addition to ribbons, judges give each item a critique. "That's how you learn," she said.

Howard County Fair highlights

The Howard County Fairgrounds are at Exit 80 of Interstate 70 in West Friendship. The fair will run through Saturday. Hours are 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Parking is free. Admission is free for children younger than age 10; $4 for ages 10 and older; and $2 for those ages 62 and older. Information and complete schedule: www.how ardcountyfair.com or 410-442-1022.

Today: "All you can ride" on amusement rides for $12; 10 a.m., gaited classic horse show; 8 p.m., slow tractor race.

Tomorrow: Senior citizens admitted free from 9 a.m. to noon. Rides $1 each all day; 8 a.m., Arabian, half-Arabian and open horse shows; 9 a.m., Shetland and Welsh pony shows; 10 a.m., senior expo.

Wednesday: "All you can ride" on the amusement rides for $12; 10 a.m., Hands on History, miniature horse show, English/western play day horse show; 6:15 p.m., 4-H livestock sale.

Thursday: Rides $1 each all day; 8 a.m., hunters and breeding horse show; 7 p.m., amateur variety talent show.

Friday: Health and Wellness Day; 8 a.m., quarter horse show; 10 a.m., health fair; 7 p.m., parade of floats.

Saturday: 8 a.m., 4-H rocketry contest; 10:30 a.m., baby contest and miniature parade, 26th annual horse pull; 3 p.m., ninth annual antique tractor pull.

Every day will feature a petting zoo and agricultural education center, magicians and clowns, pig races, pony rides, 4-H and home arts demonstrations, 4-H and open livestock shows, amusement rides and games and health and lifestyle seminars.

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