Fairly Fair History of Fair-ing
Throughout history, Frederick and Carroll countians have come together to celebrate family and friendships at singing and theater events, church socials or end of summer harvest celebrations.
The Carroll County fair’s website says that this is the 117th year for the fair as we know it today. The theme this year is “Dream it, Do it, Remember it at the Carroll County 4-H FFA Fair.” It continues for the rest of this week at the Carroll County Agriculture Center just south of Westminster.
Although much of the fair is about judging who has the best animal, baked goods, or arts and crafts project, everyone who attends, supports or participates in this year’s fair is a winner.
And the food is simply super.
End of summer harvest festivals and ‘fairs’ are a tradition that are as old as the history of agriculture. In the United States, before 1865, the business of farming was, for the most part, a subsistence existence.
Farmers were essentially self-sufficient. But after the Civil War, farmers became increasingly “dependent on creditors, merchants, and railroads for their livelihoods.
These relationships created opportunities for economic gain, but also obligations, hardships, and risks that many farmers did not welcome,” notes agriculture historian James I. Stewart, of Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
Economic historians note that it was the period between 1865 and 1900 when there was intense agricultural unrest in the country which had profound economic and political repercussions that remain a part of public policy to this day. Historian Carol Lee, the author of “Legacy of the Land” refers to this period in Carroll County, from 1861 – 1895, as the “Long Depression.”
As an aside, the current climate of unrest in the county over immigration, globalization, market fluctuations, and matters of access and utilization of credit essentially pale in comparison to the enormous social, political, and economic turbulence over these very same issues in the 1865 to 1900 period.
As far as an agricultural fair in Carroll and Frederick counties, it is interesting to note that Michigan agricultural historian and educator, Kenyon Butterfield declared 1850-1870 as the “golden age of the agricultural fair.”
During this period there was a growing nationalization and globalization of the business of farming after the Civil War.
According to “…and all our yesterdays, A Chronicle of Frederick County, Maryland,” by John W. Ashbury, the annual harvest fair in Frederick County “got a permanent home on September 7, 1876, when the Agriculture Society established the Frederick Fairgrounds on East Patrick Street.
“On May 23, 1822, the first Frederick County Cattle Show was held at George Creager’s Tavern near the Jug Bridge over the Monocracy River. It was only the second such event ever held in Maryland…”
In a conversation at the Carroll County fairgrounds last Saturday with Andy Cashman, an authority on the history of American agricultural shows and an official with both the Maryland State Fair and Carroll County Fair, he noted that one of the first fairs in Maryland may have taken place as early as 1819 – or even 1745.
Mr. Cashman’s reference to early fair chronology is supported by a history of the Maryland State Fair, “125 Years of the Maryland State Fair,” by Melissa Simulcik, Laura Janicki, and Edie Bernier, “the passage of time has obscured many of the characters and events of the (Maryland State) Fair’s earliest days.
“Various news sources of the 19th century claim that the first fair in Maryland took place in the town of Baltimore in October 1745.
“This fair,” according to the state fair history book, was reportedly held on the estate of Colonel John Eager Howard, which fell between York and Falls Road, just beyond the end of Charles Street…
“Horse racing … is a recurring theme of fairs … in Maryland… Early racing enthusiasts would find that the only legal way to organize a racing meet was to first obtain a permit to hold a fair…
According to the state fair history book, “While the existence of (fair) events at the York Road race track can be confirmed, their chronology is much harder to verify. Local lore suggests that events were held as early as 1819…”
In Carroll County, the current fair celebrates its roots going back to a picnic held August 14, 1897, at the Otterdale Schoolhouse, in Taneytown, according to a history published in the 1997 fair guide. The fair moved to Westminster in 1954, to the Ag Center, which was established as a private organization on March 20, 1954.
The first mention of the Carroll County ‘fair’ occurs tangentially in the days immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg. In “Recollections,” Dr. Joshua Hering describes, “A temporary camp was made in a field on the “Fairground Hill,” immediately to the left of the turnpike.”
The first authoritative mention of an organized fair event occurs in 1869. Historian Nancy Warner writes in her book, “Carroll County Maryland, A History,” on January 11, 1869, the Carroll County Agricultural Society was organized “at a meeting at the Court House.”
“Capital of $25,000 was raised through the sale of 500 shares of stock at $50 per share. Thirty acres of land was bought between the present Fair Street and Malcolm Drive…”
It is believed that the first fair after the January 1869 meeting took place that year on July 4. Later, a “program of events” found in an 1871 publication of the American Sentinel, refers to a “Grand Exhibition of Farm machinery under the auspices of the Carroll County Agriculture Society on the Fair Grounds, Westminster, MD…”
And remember – go to the fair hungry. The food is incredible.
… I’m just saying. . . . .
Follow Mr. Dayhoff on Twitter: @kevindayhoff