Delmarva’s County Fair Season

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Delmarva's County Fair Season is now underway. It is part of a longstanding tradition that predates the close of the Civil War when farmers in our country were struggling.

At that time President Andrew Johnson commissioned a study to find out how to help farmers throughout the country but particularly in the South whose livelihood was decimated by the war. One conclusion was to start an organization similar to the Freemasons. The Patrons of Husbandry, the National Grange, was founded in 1867. From the beginning they have included women and youth in all levels of the organization. The Grange states that, "The family is the base of the organization with full membership beginning at age 14."

Since that time the Grange has developed into an important network for the people who grow our food. They help get important scientific information out to farmers and they serve to advocate for the rights and concerns of the producers of our agriculture.

They also have made the annual summer fair a regular focal point of their year. These festivals were part of an ancient tradition of harvest season markets and competitions between farmers. The American tradition of county fairs began in the early 19th century when farmers brought out their best livestock to be judged against their neighbors'. New farm equipment was displayed and demonstrated. There were contests for the best fruits and vegetables, pies, preserves, and hand crafts.

In the early twentieth century the 4-H Club became an important partner of the Grange and the newly formed county cooperative extension network which was developed by the US Department of Agriculture to encourage farmers to learn the newest methods of growing crops and livestock. Children had already been organized locally into growing clubs specializing in things like corn and tomatoes when the 4-H was formed. The clubs became a both an educational and social center for children in rural communities.

Youngsters are taught both traditional and cutting edge farming practices and the annual fair competition gives them something to work towards every year. They grow their own fruits and vegetables and even their own cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, and chickens. They make crafts and prepare preserves. They learn about hard work and how to win or lose graciously. 4-H is thought to be critical to the future of farming and the source of our food, because it helps inspire a new generation of farmers.

Over time county fairs grew to include other farm related amusements like tractor pull competitions, and cow chip tossing; then came the addition of the midway with carnival rides, and musical acts. Here on the Delmarva Peninsula the tradition is alive and well.

In Delaware the individual counties come together for the Delaware State fair which was held for the first time in 1920. It is the biggest festival of this type on the peninsula attracting over 300,000 visitors every year during the last week of July. This year it will have all the expected down home country attractions along with a rodeo event, a demolition derby, and nationally recognized musical entertainment like Bryan Adams and New Kids on The Block.

The next biggest country fair here is the annual Chincoteague Pony Penning & Auction. Also held the last week of July every year, things get started there with a blueberry festival. Then the focus is completely on the wild horses of Assateague. [which you'll hear more about later in our show. ]

In Maryland, every county has their own county fair coming up except Talbot which already had theirs and Caroline and Dorchester County which hold a combined event. There are also a few other agricultural festivals every summer on the peninsula also worth mentioning. August 1st is the Blessing of the Combines with its spectacular parade of farm equipment through downtown Snow Hill Maryland. On August 15th it is the Middletown Delaware Peach Festival. And on August 22nd the Annual Great Eastern Shore Tomato Festival is held in Vienna, Maryland.

The annual farm festival is a great chance for us to reconnect with the source of our foods and the people right here on Delmarva who produce it, so food is always a center piece. Cotton candy, popcorn, and funnel cake are certainly to be expected but more importantly locally grown food is showcased like fresh corn on the cob, and heirloom tomatoes. Here on Delmarva chicken is served fried or barbecued. Often there is locally caught seafood - raw, steamed, or fried.

When I was growing up my father entered his jellies every year in the county fair. He was very proud of the ribbons he won for his various flavors: elderberry, strawberry, apple, and even pepper jelly. Except for the wild elderberries which he picked himself, he grew the main ingredients for all of his recipes. Each fair has specific rules for these contests that you would need to become acquainted with, but you don't have to be a farmer to enter them. So if you have a terrific recipe using something from your own garden there is a county fair waiting for you. This is a great way to get know people throughout your county.

The county fair is indeed a beloved American tradition. What a delight it is to see all the beautiful farm animals and watch a proud young child getting an award for their prize rabbit or pig. Who does not have a lovely memory of going to the fair and your first Ferris wheel ride when you start to rise up above the hot sweaty crowds into the cool night air to look out over the magically colorful lights and tents? Somewhere we all have hidden in a storage box a ridiculous looking stuffed toy won on the midway the sight of which recalls the bizarrely wonderful smell of cooking sugar mixed with hay and cow manure, and the delicious teenage anticipation that this is the year that you might just have a romantic encounter at the annual county fair?

To make you own county fair memory, eat some delicious locally sourced food, and connect with your neighbors get yourself to one of Delmarva's county fairs this summer.


The Delaware State Fair
July 23rd through August 1st

Middletown Peach Festival
August 15, 2015

Blessing of the Combines
August 1, 2015

Caroline-Dorchester County Fair
August 5-8, 2015

Cecil County Fair
July 24 - August 1, 2015

Caroline Summerfest
August 21 & 22, 2015

4th Annual Great Eastern Shore Tomato Festival
August 22, 2015

Kent County (Maryland) Fair
July 16-18, 2015

Queen Anne's County Fair
August 10-15, 2015

Somerset County Fair
July 24-26, 2015

Talbot County Fair
July 8th - 11th, 2015

Wicomico County Fair
August 14-16, 2015

Worcester County Fair
August 7-9, 2015

28th Annual Chincoteague Island Blueberry Festival
July 24-25, 2015

Chincoteague Pony Swim & Penning
July 29 - August 2, 2015


The National Grange

The Grange Movement, 1875

Encylobpedia of Chicago

4-H Clubs of America