Alberta Davis and Joan Knecht go for a ride on the Octopus at the 1951 Maryland State Fair (William Klender, Baltimore Sun photo, 1951). CLICK HERE to see more retro fair photos.
For well over 100 years, Free State fairgoers have been flocking to Timonium in late summer for the Maryland State Fair, an annual celebration of livestock, agriculture, horse racing and carnival midways that years ago earned the moniker — coined by some well-compensated ad writer somewhere, we suspect — “The 10 best days of summer.”
Evidence suggests that horse racing in the Timonium area can be traced as far back as the 1830s, but it wasn’t until Sept. 8-12, 1879, that the first “Timonium Fair” was held. Save for three years during World War II, it’s been going strong ever since. This year’s festivities run from Aug. 22 to Sept. 1.
A scene from the 1934 Maryland State Fair (Baltimore Sun file photo, 1934). CLICK HERE to see more retro fair photos.
Not that things haven’t changed over the years…
A Baltimore Sun article from Sept. 5, 1890, noted the thousands of people who showed up to the fair the day before. “The grand stand, as well as the open space in front, was packed almost to suffocation and there were thousands of persons who did not see the races at all,” the correspondent explained, “though every available space was utilized outside the grand stand enclosure.”
The article went on to note how John Stirling of Baltimore County had raised three bushels of peaches on his farm this year, “perhaps, the largest yield in the county.” Messrs. Griffith and Turner, the article said, won a gold medal for the “best, largest and most valuable and varied collection of farm and garden implements and machinery” (between 200 and 300 pieces!). And the unfortunate Herr Bros. of Westminster arrived at the fair too late to compete for prizes.
(The article ends with a list of names of people who visited the fair. My, coverage was certainly thorough back in those days!)
Ginny Pearce of Sparks and Charles E. Wilson of Ruxton chat about tractors and things at the 1953 fair. (William Klender, Baltimore Sun photo, 1953). CLICK HERE to see more retro fair photos.
By the 1960s and 1970s, some began to wonder if the fair might have outgrown its longtime Baltimore County home. Congestion along York Road brought traffic to a standstill, parking spaces nearby were often nonexistent (as harried area residents complained, noting that fair visitors thought nothing of parking in front of nearby homes and hoofing it to the fair). Thankfully, improvements to York Road and other upgrades — including the opening of a light rail station near the fairgrounds in 1992 — have helped considerably.
(Side note: In 1950, the Maryland Jockey Club, which had been running the fair since 1918, put the fairgrounds up for sale. A group of community leaders organized to buy out the Jockey Club and keep the fair safely in Timonium.)
4H Club member Emily Geisbert of Montgomery County with her pig, Star Dust, which won first prize in the Grand Champion and Junior Showmanship classes at the 1953 fair. (William Klender, Baltimore Sun photo, 1953). CLICK HERE to see more retro fair photos.
It’s hard to say which fair attraction is the most popular — for every person who can’t spend enough time at the racetrack, there’s another who can’t get enough of giant pumpkins or who loves watching chicks hatch in an incubator. In recent years, big-name concerts have drawn thousands to Timonium. In 2010, Justin Bieber, then at the height of Biebermania, sang to hordes of screaming preteen girls at the fair.
Singer Justin Bieber performs at the 2010 state fair. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo, 2010)
But it’s the carnival midway and rides that probably make the biggest impression on the most people. Ferris wheels and other rides have been a staple for decades, and the sound of carnival barkers promising to show people the most amazing stuff they’ve ever seen goes on undiminished. In the early ‘70s, visitors to the fair could pay to see the missing link, a creature who would answer the question, “Was Darwin right? Did man evolve from ape?” In 2011, a garish sign near the eastern end of the midway promised an encounter with a 4-foot-long, 100-pound rat.
Wonder what John Stirling and his peaches would have thought of that?
Heather Carey, Sunny Lach and Mary McCall take a ride on the Ferris wheel at the 1968 state fair. (Edward Nolan, Baltimore Sun photo, 1968)