CULPEPER, Va. — Forget Ferris wheels and cotton candy. At the Culpeper-Madison-Rappahannock County Fair, it’s all about “just bein’ country.”
The fair, tucked away in Virginia’s rural Culpeper County, harkens back to the good old days when fun meant family, animals and spending time outdoors.
“We like to keep it country,” says Kelly Bailey, one of the fair’s organizers. “It’s just good clean family fun.”
To the Washington suburbanite, the place feels like a time warp. The city’s incessant ring of cell phones is replaced by a cacophony of bleating animals. Men in overalls gather in the hot sun to talk horse and cattle pricing. Youngsters lounge in the shade of the animal pens, discussing how their steers fared in showmanship events.
The CMR county fair is hardly atypical. These ventures always revolve around agriculture and family bonding, says Alan Nogiac, vice president of the Virginia Association of Fairs.
“We work really hard to maintain the old-fashioned county fair and atmosphere,” Mr. Nogiac says. “We stay away from bringing in high-tech kinds of displays and demonstrations. We do things people can relate to, but we try to maintain the basics of what life was 50 years ago.”
The CMR fair, which took place early this month, is one of the earliest of the season. The Cecil County Fair in Maryland and the Loudoun and Frederick county fairs in Virginia are under way now, and wrap up Saturday. The Warren County Fair begins Sunday. By August and September, the Washington area will see several fairs each week.
The size, location and events at the fairs may vary, but the basic premise remains the same: safe, friendly, community-building activities.
At CMR, you won’t find any bawdy acts, beer or provocative contests. The raciest event is a mechanical bull ride, but even that is geared toward little children.
The CMR fair, now in its 54th year, relies mostly on livestock shows, musical performances and children’s contests for entertainment. Rides and attractions will be showcased during CMR’s first-ever carnival, to be held Aug. 9-13.
Dennis Culp, of the Virginia Association of Fairs, says the fairs that include rides and grandstand shows do so to help raise money and pull in audiences who would not normally attend an agricultural event.
“It’s to try to attract the urban consumer or the rural consumer that may not be a participant,” he said. “It’s for them to come to the fair and then look at the animals and agriculture.”
If the purpose of rides is to attract non-participants, they may be unnecessary at CMR: Almost everyone here is involved in some aspect of the festivities.
Most of the children at the fair are members of 4-H, a national youth organization that began at the turn of the last century and is now an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension System. The four “H”s stand for “Head, Heart, Hands and Health.” Members are between the ages of 9 and 18. Children younger than 9 can also get involved — they are called Cloverbuds.
Local 4-H clubs champion agricultural education and community service. The members work on several projects throughout the year and come to county fairs to show off their accomplishments. They also work as volunteers to help pull off a fair at a low cost.
The projects can include anything from baking and knitting to crafts and photography, but at most fairs, including the CMR fair, showing off farm animals the children have been raising is the focus. Almost half of the fair’s events are showmanship contests, in which 4-H members display their animals and receive prizes based on which animal is best groomed and most obedient.
Beef and dairy cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, rabbits, goats and horses are the stars at any 4-H fair. At Culpeper, Bubby Cole, a burly 14-year-old from Stevensburg, Va., sits on a bench next to his steer, Rex. In the 90-degree heat, Bubby’s face has turned nearly as red as his hair. This is Bubby’s first year showing animals, but he has already won the grand champion title in Beef Showmanship. He had been training Rex for the competition since January.
“You gotta work on ‘em every day,” he says. “Trying to tame it and everything was fun. And trying to get it to roll.”
Bubby’s friend, 11-year-old Andrew Smith, saunters up. Andrew, who lives in Culpeper, won first place in showmanship and fourth place in breeding with his Holstein steer, BBQ.
“It’s all eyes on the judge,” he says, describing the showmanship competition.
“There’s nothing you can prepare for. It’s just your steer and how it acts with the loud intercom and all. I think I just got lucky.”
Andrew says he’s sad to let his steer be sold on the market.
“I got so attached to it,” he says. “I put all my work and effort into it and now it’s going away.”
Bubby isn’t as sentimental. He’s relieved he won’t have to take care of Rex anymore.
“I’m glad when it gets taken away,” he says.
On the other side of the hill, spectators are gathering for one of the fair’s highlights, the horse race and mule pull. The all-day event consists of several races and competitions involving horses, donkeys and ponies. Attendance costs $5. Larry Wise, a ruddy-faced mountain of a man who heads the races, says the fee helps cover the fair’s costs.
“Most people don’t realize that it takes $20,000 to put on a one-week show,” he says. “And $20,000 is kind of hard to come by.”
Attendees park their pickup trucks and sedans on the grass along the straightaway. As the horse race gets under way, it becomes obvious that none of the riders is a professional jockey. The horses amble along, weaving unsteadily across the track and practically trotting off the cracked clay path.
Becky Brown, a 26-year-old cattle farm worker from Sperryville, Va., easily wins the competition. Miss Brown, who moved from Massachusetts to work on the farm, says she’s been around horses her whole life.
“Our first baby sitter was a horse,” she jokes.
It’s her first time at the fair, but Miss Brown says she enjoys events like this because they give her an opportunity to ride horses and hang out with peers in a relaxed setting.
“It’s a good group of people because they have a common interest,” she says.
The sentiment sums up the prevailing attitude at the fairgrounds. Despite the multitude of contests going on, everyone seems to be here to support one another.
Donna Whitt, a homemaker in charge of the fair’s crafts building, says she’s amazed at how congenial the children are.
“The kids that compete with each other are all for each other,” she says. “It’s such a family-oriented thing.”
The crafts building is one of the fair’s main hubs for competition. It houses a multitude of contest entries, from flowers and photography to crafts and canning. Cloverbuds, 4-H members and adults have separate entries. Mrs. Whitt says some of the children have as many as 50 entries in various contests.
Back at the fair’s main building, a “Little Mr. and Mrs. CMR Fair” contest is under way. Young Cloverbuds dressed up in stereotypical farm clothes meander about the stage and pose for their parents’ cameras.
Little Gregory Orange of Culpeper wins the contest for the 5-8 age group. The young boy is dressed in boots and overalls, with a straw jutting proudly from his mouth.
Although Gregory’s outfit helped him win the competition, his grandmother, 51-year-old Gretchen Yates of Culpeper, says he didn’t have to put on anything special to impress the judges.
“He wears those clothes around the house,” she says. “We didn’t have to buy anything.”
Mrs. Yates says the straw was her idea. She thought it would be a good addition to the contest because “it just looked country.”
“Country” seems to emanate from everywhere on the fairgrounds. It’s in the men who discuss complex farming and irrigation techniques as if they were chatting about the weather. It’s in the incredulous way the children stare when they find out that not everyone knows the difference between a cow and a steer (a cow is a female; a steer is a castrated male). It’s in the rhythmic twang of the banjo of the Dark Hollow Bluegrass Band, the fair’s entertainment headliner.
As the band plays, two pre-teen girls dance on the stage, oblivious to the audience they are blocking. Nobody seems to mind. After all, everyone’s family here, and the focus is on fun.
Yet the fair is a teaching tool as well. One of the reasons it exists is to provide today’s youth with a glimpse into the lives of their forebears. Spending a day at the fair is as much a lesson in history and anthropology as an excuse to eat funnel cake and pet cute animals.
One of the agencies at the fair is the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation. The Virginia-based non-profit advocates using animals instead of machinery to remove timber because animals are less disruptive to the environment.
The foundation’s president, Jason Rutledge, says the fair is one of the best places to teach children about traditional practices such as farming and forestry in an easygoing, informal way.
“It’s about learning about life outside of institutional changes,” he says. “Most of what we learn is from one person to another, so this is a learning experience for the children.”
It’s true that farmers are in many ways a disappearing breed. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, just 1.9 percent of the employed labor force works in agriculture, compared to 4 percent in 1970. But the children at the CMR fair seem eager to follow in the footsteps of their parents.
Jenna Stallings, 18, from Culpeper, says she’s been involved with 4-H in one way or another her whole life. She’s won several prizes, and her team won seventh place in the state “Dairy Quiz Bowl,” a game-show-style competition to see who knows the most about dairy cows. Miss Stallings plans to go into her family’s dog grooming business in Culpeper, Grooming by Joann.
Many of the children will follow a path similar to Miss Stallings’. Through 4-H training and community events, they will prepare to do what their ancestors have done. But for now the fair is about relaxing, having fun and showing off a little of what they’ve learned.
The fair “is something to bring the kids to that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” Mrs. Bailey says. “And folks can have good old-fashioned fun.”
County fairs fun, accessible and plentiful
Fair season is just beginning, and many of the bigger county fairs are coming in August and September. Here’s a selection of fairs within easy driving distance of Washington.
m Cecil County Fair: Fair Hill Fairgrounds, Route 273, Elkton. Racing pigs, tractor pulls, ponies and jumpers, hay toss, barnyard olympics, rodeo, more. Through July 30. Admission $5 adults, $2 seniors (60-plus) and children 6-12, free to children under 6. 410/392-3440 or cecilcountyfair.org.
Howard County Fair: 2210 Fairgrounds Road, West Friendship (exit 80 off Route 70). Parade, rides, pie eating and cow milking contests, threshing and spinning demos, livestock judging, petting zoo, pony rides, mule pull, worm race, more. Aug. 6-13. Admission $4 (10 years and up), $2 seniors (62 and up). 410/442-1022 or howardcountyfair.com.
Montgomery County Agricultural Fair: Perry Parkway, Gaithersburg. Maryland’s largest county fair. Llama show, horse shoe pitch, skid loader contest, dog show, cheese carving, lawn and garden tractor pull, more. Aug. 12-20. Admission $4-$7 (adults), children under 7 free. Group rates available. 301/926-3100, www.mcagfair.com.
Maryland State Fair: York and Timonium roads, Timonium. Budweiser Clydesdales, hot air balloons, cow birthing center, milking clinic, bull riding, pig races, chili competition, more. Aug. 26-Sept. 5. Admission $6 adults. Children under 12 free. 410/252-0200, www.marylandstatefair.com.
Prince George’s County Fair: Prince George’s County Equestrian Center, Upper Marlboro. Pie eating contest, fashion show, bale toss, tractor pull, NASCAR track, antique cars, baby show, petting farm, more. Sept. 8-11. Admission $5 adults, children 6-17 $4, children 5 and under free. 301/579-2598, www.countyfair.org.
Anne Arundel County Fair: Route 178, General’s Highway, Crownsville. Baked goods, farm and garden, petting zoo, honey extracting, candle and scarecrow making, tractor parade, more. Sept. 14-18. 410/923-3400, www.aacounty fair.org.
Charles County Fair: Fairgrounds Road off Route 301, La Plata. Queen Nicotina contest, baby and pet contests, home arts, agriculture, livestock, more. Sept. 15-18. Admission $5 adults and children over 11. Children 10 and under free. 301/932-1234, www.charles countyfair.com.
The Great Frederick Fair: Patrick Street, Frederick. Livestock birthing center, demolition derby, landscape contest, farm machinery show, harness racing, more. Sept. 16-24. Admission $5 adults and children over 10, others free. Free to all at some hours; call for details. 301/663-5895, www.thegreatfrederickfair.com.
St. Mary’s County Fair: Fairgrounds, Route 5 and Fairgrounds Road, Leonardtown. Home arts, livestock, gardens, 4-H exhibits, contests, carnival rides, entertainment, local foods. Sept. 22-25. 301/475-8434.
Calvert County Fair: 140 Calvert Fair Drive, Barstow. Baby contest, pie eating, bingo, horse pull, puppet show, more. Sept. 28-Oct. 2. 410/535-0026.
m Loudoun County Fair: 17558 Dry Mill Road, Leesburg. Pig scramble, reptile show, bunny dress-up, kiss-a-pig, tug-of-war, rodeo, more. Concluding July 30. 703/777-3835, www.loudouncountyfair.com.
Frederick County Fair: 167 Fairground Road (off Route 11), Clearbrook. Bubble-gum blowing, egg-in-spoon relay, box turtle derby, potato sack race, Little Miss Frederick pageant, cow chip toss, demolition derby, petting zoo, pie-eating contest, more. Admission $5 adults and children over 12, $2 children 6-11, free to children under 5. July 24-30. 540/667-8739, www.frederick countyfair.com.
Warren County Fair: Winchester Road (Route 522 North), Front Royal. Racing pigs, goats and ducks, mechanical bull riding, bingo, demolition derby, tractor pull, karaoke, more. July 31-Aug. 6. Admission $3 adults and children over 12, $1 children 7-12, free to children 6 and under. 540/635-5827, www.warren countyfair.com.
Fairfax County 4-H Fair and Frying Pan Park Farm Show: Frying Pan Park, 2709 West Ox Road, Herndon. Horse shows, livestock and rabbit judging, dog and pet shows, goat milking, pie-eating contest, crafts, hayrides, blacksmith and farrier demos, sheep shearing, more. Aug. 6-7. Admission and parking free. 703-324-5369, www.4hfairfax.org.
Prince William County Fair: 10624 Dumfries Road, Manassas. Pet show, baby contest, greatest grandparents’ contest, pig races, tractor pull, mud bog, Civil War display, more. Aug. 12-20. Admission $15 ages 7-59, $7 ages 3-6 and 60-plus, free to children under 2 and active military with ID. 703/368-0173, www.pwcfair.com.
Clarke County Fair: Route 7, Berryville. Pig scramble, llama display, lawn mower race, bull riding, horseshoe pitching, chicken and rabbit parade, demolition derby, more. Aug. 14-20. Admission $5 adults, $2 children. 540/955-2530, www.ccfairva.com.
Arlington County Fair: Thomas Jefferson Community Center, 3501 South Second St., Arlington. Pony rides, pig and goat races, petting zoo, helium balloons, arts and crafts, baking, more. Aug. 18-21. 703/228-3289, www.Arlington countyfair.org.
Page Valley Agricultural and Industrial Fair: Collins Avenue, Luray. Beauty contests, horse shows, tractor pull, swine, steer, beef and heifer shows, more. Aug. 21-27. Admission $6 adults, $3 children 6-12, free to children under 6. 540/843-3247, www.pageval leyfair.com.
Shenandoah County Fair: 300 Fairground Road, Woodstock (Exit 283, I-81). Dog and cat tattoo clinic, greased pig contest, sack race, three-legged and wheelbarrow races, rolling pin toss, llama exhibit, wine tasting, harness racing, more. Aug. 26-Sept. 3. Admission $5 adults, $2 children 6-11, free to children 5 and under. 540/459-3867, www.shencofair.com.
Culpeper-Madison-Rappahannock Fair Carnival: Culpeper Agricultural Enterprises, Route 29, Culpeper. Games and rides galore. Aug. 9-13. 540/825-3335, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
State Fair of Virginia: Richmond Raceway Complex, 600 East Laburnum Ave., Richmond. Rawhide rodeo, demolition derby, racing pigs, crops and plants, antiques, more. Sept. 22-Oct. 2. Call for times and ticket prices. 804/569-3244, www.state fair.com.