Human cannonball was big attraction at Howard County Fairs held at Laurel Raceway

Howard County Times
A 'human cannonball' hung over the skies at Howard County Fairs held at Laurel Raceway in 1948 and 1949

The Howard County Fair is held annually on sprawling, modern fairgrounds in West Friendship. This year's fair, which opens Saturday, will offer 10,000 exhibits, 150 cattle, 400 dairy livestock and more than 1,000 other animals. The entire production is the result of more than 1,000 workers pulling it together. All of this is in stark contrast to the fair's beginnings 70 years ago. For the first seven years of its existence, the fair bounced between three different locations, including one in Laurel.

Prior to 1946, Howard County farmers attended Farm Bureau meetings and picnics, 4-H field days and meetings of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal organization first organized after the Civil War that promotes the economic and political interests of agricultural communities.

At a Grange meeting in 1946, the idea of a county fair was first broached to enthusiastic members. Things moved quickly and within a few months, the first annual Howard County Fair was held at Brendel's Manor Park, on what is now Route 144 on the site of the Old St. Charles College and adjacent to historic Doughregan Manor. It was also referred to as "Gospel Park."

The two-day fair held in August drew 3,000 people and made a profit of $2,000. Besides animal exhibits and competitions, contests were held in hog-calling, rolling pin throwing for women, chicken-calling and horseshoes. Agricultural classes were offered, along with exhibits from community organizations. For entertainment, disc jockey Happy Johnny and his Radio Gang played country music. The small venue had only one building for exhibits, classes and entertainment, so the livestock was tied up outside. Mary Jane Rippeon was crowned the first Howard County Farm Queen.

With the success of the inaugural fair, organizers decided to make things official and permanent, forming the Howard County Fair Association and selling stock in the new corporation.

Because Brendel's Park was sold, the second fair, in 1947, was moved to Ellicott City High School on Montgomery Road, currently the site of Ellicott Mills Middle School. Ellicott City High School was closed after Howard High School opened in 1952. At the second fair, space was still at a premium, however, with tents housing the exhibits and the livestock tied up outside. Attendance dipped to 2,500, so organizers searched for a larger venue for the third year.

Harvey Hill, one of the early organizers of the fair, told the Baltimore Sun, "The owner of Laurel Raceway said, 'We'll let you come down and use the raceway for $1 if you'll put metal rods on the barns.' You see, it was just after the war and they couldn't buy roofing or nails unless it was used for agricultural purposes." Laurel Raceway, renamed Freestate Raceway in 1979, was a harness horse track on Route 1 on the current site of the Carmax dealership. The Maryland legislature got involved and decreed that the fair would have to be held in conjunction with the harness racing.

Laurel Raceway hosted the fair in 1948 and 1949, and provided a huge venue, which organizers used to their advantage. The fair was expanded and became a three-day extravaganza. With the regular slate of harness races also running, the infield was transformed into a huge fairground with a circus atmosphere.

The Ellicott City Times described the scene: "The midway, with its numerous attractions and free shows, is something new this year and is sure to attract both adults and youngsters. Patrons may stroll around the grounds or rest in the seats of the grandstand. Food will be on sale on the grounds, enabling anyone to spend the day without making advance lunch preparations."

Magicians and other acts were continuously running on the midway. Advertisements for the fair listed the attractions: "Haunted Cabinet of Quong Hi," "See a Flock of Pigeons Disappear Before Your Very Eyes," "A Solid Blade Passed Thru A Young Ladies [sic] Head" and "701 Thrills, Chills, And Laughs," among others.

But the highlight of the fair at Laurel was an appearance by The Great Zacchini, known as the Human Cannonball, who was shot from a cannon and flew over two Ferris wheels. Hugo Zacchini was the head of a family of Italian daredevils. The act expanded from the Zacchini brothers to include their sisters, as well as later generations. In the late 1950s, when space travel became planned, Zacchini lobbied NASA to be its first astronaut. He claimed he was the only man experienced for space travel.

At the Howard County Fair at Laurel Raceway, Hugo Zacchini performed his signature act of being shot 200 feet over two Ferris wheels and landing in a net.

When he was 6 and 7 years old, Charles Iager attended both fairs at Laurel and won blue ribbons for his roosters. He has attended every fair since then. He recently recalled watching The Great Zacchini being shot over the Ferris wheels. "I was only six years old but that's a sight you'll never forget," he said.

The increased number of exhibits and attractions at Laurel Raceway failed to attract fair goers in large numbers, in large part because of heavy rains, and the Laurel years showed financial losses.

In 1950, the financial difficulties meant the fair was scaled back to two days and moved back to Brendel's, then under new management. Organizers imposed many measures to cut expenses, such as not boarding the livestock. Harvey Hill, who had become the new sheriff in Howard County, used prisoners for labor to construct the temporary buildings.

For 1951 and 1952, the fair returned to the grounds of Ellicott City High School. The expense-cutting seemed to have an effect as the 1951 fair yielded a profit of approximately $1,800. The financial success enabled organizers to return to a four-day fair in 1952. There was one big headache for the organizers that year. A much-publicized elephant act had to be canceled when they learned $2,500 was required to get the animals through customs in San Francisco and transported across the country.

In 1953, the permanent fairgrounds opened on 23 acres in West Friendship. The woods were cleared and the trees brought to a sawmill and turned into lumber used to construct the buildings.

The fair has evolved and kept up with modern agricultural trends and the ever-changing tastes of visitors. According to Fair President Mickey Day, the fair has experienced steady expansion of the grounds over the years and is constantly tinkering with exhibits, rides and entertainment. For example, the 1960 fair, at the height of the Cold War, had an exhibit showing how to build a fallout shelter; and competitions in Maryland's state sport, jousting, were held for a few years in the 1960s.

Day said 100,000 visitors are expected at the 2015 fair, which runs from Aug. 8-15.

The success of the fair over 70 years can be measured in many ways. For example, since the first year the fair has awarded scholarships to students. In 1946, the first fair awarded a Howard County Council scholarship to Jane Fleming for $7.50. This year's fair will award up to six $2,000 educational scholarships.

Information for this story was found at the Howard County Historical Society and the Howard County Fair Association. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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