The arrival of this year's Harford County Farm Fair got me to thinking about the event and its future and my own view of fairs and carnivals and the like.
Growing up in the suburbs, any early exposure to a true "country fair" was pretty illusionary. There was a country fair each year at my elementary school, whose purpose was to raise funds for the home and school association, so it could buy things for the school. Can't say as I remember too much about that.
There was an amusement park in our hometown, or maybe it would be best called half an amusement park, although they apparently entered the big time when the got the Wild Mouse ride that was pretty terrifying. Mostly, though, old Playtown Park was a place where the 12- and 13-year-old boys went to hang out, play pinball and smoke.
There was another amusement park about 10 miles west, Lenape, which was actually pretty neat because it had an old wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, a real carousel like the one in Hitchcock's production of "Strangers on a Train" and canoe rides along Brandywine Creek that flowed through the park. Lenape survives as a park today, but those old rides from when I was a kid are gone.
Once our family took a trip to Ephrata Fair a few hours drive north and west. I was pretty young then and confused about the whole thing, except I do remember they had some nice homemade potato chips for sale, as well as a bunch of other basically junk in the opinion of a 9-year-old.
Even worse was my first trip to the circus, in this instance the Shrine Circus, that played in the old Arena at 46th and Market streets in West Philadelphia. My mother and I rode the elevated train from the suburban terminal at 69th Street to the arena, which was fun, but our seats for the matinee performance were so high and so far from the action, I couldn't tell you a thing I saw from the show.
The best part of the day, in fact, was when we went to leave and saw the youngsters lined up waiting to be admitted to Bandstand which was in its early days - i.e. hosted by Bob Horn, not Dick Clark - and staged in a TV studio next to the Arena. The girls all wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, and the boys had on black pants and sported ducktail haircuts. Now, that was something to aspire to be part of, not the circus.
Each year in our town, a traveling circus arrived about May, sponsored by the local Lions Club if memory serves correct. It was a big enough deal that we were let out of school early and bused over to the Memorial Park to see the show with our discount tickets. Again, I never really got the point of the circus, but a free afternoon away from school was nothing to complain about.
When I was 9, the same Hunt Brothers Circus that came to town each May showed up in Avalon, N.J., where I was spending the summer with my grandparents. Very early in the morning, my grandfather and I went over to the athletic field on the north end of town where the circus was being set up. The unfolding scene was something you read about in books but typically don't see in person:
They actually used two or three elephants to pick up the large posts for the big top, and the pachyderms worked in tandem to carry the posts to where they were needed and then assisted the roustabouts in pulling the poles and tent sections into place. With a show like that, I wanted to see more, so I spent that afternoon under the big top instead of on the beach. The circus was better than I thought, after all.
When I arrived in Harford County, the old fairgrounds and racetrack off Tollgate Road were in the process of being turned into Harford Mall, the Equestrian Center had just been built and the annual 4-H shows were being held out at the camp off Cherry Hill Road. It would be another 16 years before an enterprising group of volunteers, led by Dr. Richard Cook, formed for the purpose of bringing a real old-fashioned county fair to Harford County, and the Harford County Farm Fair in its present incarnation was born.
I like the fair. I don't go every year, but I have attended many in the past and have been involved in our own coverage of the event enough to know that it's a big undertaking to prepare for and run each year. Again, we're talking about an all-volunteer effort, with many of the original volunteers still involved 25 years later, as well as many younger ones who have joined as the years rolled by.
I know the decision this year to have a carnival run concurrent to the fair was a controversial one that was born out of financial necessity. The daily admission to the fair is $8, less for youngsters, and that's a pretty cheap date in this day and age. There's been talk that the Farm Fair doesn't draw the number of people it did in the early days following its revival and needs different attractions that will appeal to a wider range of would-be visitors. This year's carnival supposedly was a step in that direction.
So, the real question here is, what makes a county fair and why do people attend? Do they go to see the animals, or the tractor contests, or get a gander at the prize winning pies and jellies, or to cheer for the pig races or ride a Ferris wheel, or maybe all of the above and everything else?
Or, maybe people get tired of the same thing year in and year out and need something new, like those elephants I saw pitching the big top, to fire up their curiosity. I'm going to take the optimistic, bright view on this question. We have a great fair in Harford County, and I believe the people who give of their time to bring it to us will continue to provide an interesting four days of entertainment that people truly want to see for many years into the future.