The buzz of hair clippers filled the air as Beth Majchrzak moved from one client to the next.
"We're what you'd call an animal hairdresser," she said with a laugh, trimming the woolly coat of a Hampshire sheep named Nickelback.
Yesterday, on the eve of the first day of competition at the Maryland State Fair, the Timonium fairgrounds was busier than a barbershop in prom season.
Farmers, animal owners and their barn help began washing, trimming, braiding and coiffuring the hair of horses, sheep, cows, swine and other beasts that will be judged in various competitions over the 11 days of the annual state fair.
"We do the same things to those cows that you do when you girls are getting ready to go out," said Dave Brauning, the chairman of the fair's agriculture committee, who will don a tuxedo and bow tie Sunday night for the annual Holstein Futurity competition.
Consider it a beauty pageant - complete with spotlights and a complex nomination process - for a certain kind of cow.
Across the fairgrounds, organizers and competitors alike were part of a flurry of activity yesterday.
With the rides and food stalls opening last night, vendors began the sickeningly sweet tasks of caramelizing popcorn and spinning pale pink and blue cotton candy. Children tossed inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags in the barn stalls that they - as well as their ponies - will bunk in during the equestrian competitions. Operators of the blinking, whirling rides on the midway addressed last-minute requests from state inspectors. And judges swirled wine entries and analyzed the color, consistency and flavor of nearly three dozen kinds of honey.
"It's hectic but tremendous fun," said Andy Cashman, assistant general manager of the Maryland State Fair, who says he vowed as a boy that he would one day "be boss of the fair."
With a golf cart as his transportation and a cell phone as his lifeline to hundreds of exhibitors and employees, Cashman fielded rapid-fire questions about where to find oversized drums to cold water, how many inches of space someone had for a display and whether he wanted a piece of cake. (For the record: Over by the barns, not as much as the person wants and - with a chuckle - maybe later.)
"This week, through today, is all about setup," Cashman said. "But once the gates open, one of the things that is the key of this place is to have fun and enjoy yourself."
Aaron Blouin of Philadelphia was certainly doing just that. Tucked away in a small room of the Farm and Garden Building, the 25-year-old was busy judging mead.
"It's one of mankind's oldest beverages," he said of the wine originally made by Egyptian pharaohs from honey. Blouin got his job as a state fair wine judge three years ago, in part, because he used to work at a Maryland winery. "I also have a lot of experience drinking," he said, "so they asked me to give it a go."
With eight varieties of mead to sample, Blouin and his fellow judges spent the early afternoon pouring and swirling, smelling and sipping, spitting and swallowing the entries.
"A good wine should stimulate all the sensory organs in the mouth and face," he explained. "It should go down smooth and be warm and soothing."
Back in the animal barns of the fairgrounds, exhibitors were just as busy getting ready for the first full day of the fair.
Roy Coale, a dairy cow herdsman, and his "royal barn help" - one college student is this year's Maryland Ayrshire Princess and another helper is an alternate Maryland State Dairy Princess - were washing and trimming their best Ayrshire heifers for competition.
"It's actually really fun," said Kathy Mahon, 20, of Mount Airy, who is studying to be a veterinarian. "The state fair has all the hoopla, and you get to see all the people you only see once a year."
Though they washed and clipped the cows yesterday, Coale and Mahon will be awake by 4 o'clock this morning to bathe the whole herd one last time before showtime, blow dry their hair and apply a healthy dose of show cow hairspray.
"It's a kind of spray-on glue that gets their hair to stand up straight and look even from shoulder to tail," Coale said.
Not too far from the Cow Palace, Majchrzak, her husband and their two kids had to prepare 15 sheep from their flock of 30 in Caroline County for competition. The family started this year's show season in the spring in Michigan and won't wrap up the competitions until late fall in Kentucky. Along the way, they sell lamb meat, sheep for breeding and the occasional fleece to spin into yarn - all of which raises money for the kids' college education.
With a frequently buzzing cell phone tucked beneath the strap of her bra, 16-year-old Ashley Majchrzak helped her mom shear Nickelback, one of the family's many sheep named for musical performers and bands.
"It was the year of the rock star in our house," Beth Majchrzak said, adding that the family's flock includes Mary J. Blige, Pink, Papa Roach and a set of triplets named Mary, Diana and Florence in a nod to the Supremes.
It was unclear whether the bleating ram minded the styling session that left his wool soft, fluffy and uniformly trimmed. The goal was to highlight the animal's bone structure, muscle tone, feet, legs and breed characteristics.
"We have to bring out their best for show day," Beth Majchrzak said. "Some people go to baseball games or football games. This is what we do."
If you go
The fair opens today and runs through Sept. 3 at the state fairgrounds, near York and Timonium roads in Timonium.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 11 and free for children younger than 6.
Rides and concerts are individually priced.
Fairgoers may use the No. 8 or No. 9 Maryland Transit Administration bus lines, or take light rail directly to the fairgrounds.
To read more about the Maryland State Fair, and for a schedule of events, go to baltimoresun.com/statefair.