On The Town

Maryland State Fair Turns 135 With Old Traditions and New Ideas

Organizers talk history, supporting local, and what’s new.

In 1881—back when James Garfield was president and a loaf of bread only set you back a nickel—a timeless tradition was established in Timonium.

What was born a simple exhibition event for locals to peddle their homemade goods has since become The Maryland State Fair, a 10-day celebration of agriculture, food, education, and entertainment.

“It all started as way for folks to come in and compare their jellies, jams, quilts, and livestock,” says assistant general manager Becky Brashear. “We’re still all about those things, but adding different components over the years has helped it to evolve.”

Now in its 135th year, the annual end-of-summer fete is returning to the State Fairgrounds in Timonium with a jam-packed lineup of attractions August 25 through September 5.

While maintaining the fair’s roots as a showcase for local purveyors remains a staple from year to year, Brashear says that introducing new events is also an important priority. She notes that organizers aim to present at least a 30-percent changeup every summer.

“It’s like when you walk into a shopping mall, nothing is ever exactly the same when you go back two weeks later,” she says. “There are so many ever flowing components of agriculture, and we work hard to keep things fresh.”

Though it has become synonymous with deep-fried foods, colorful Midway rides, horse and pig races, and pop performances (catch teen heartthrob headliners Charlie Puth and Ruth B. this year), the fair is an attempt to educate the community about the state’s local bounty.

“That’s where it differs from a theme park,” Brashear mentions. “We’re re-emphasizing the agricultural piece to families.”

As an extension of its U-Learn programs, which teach fairgoers the ins and outs of local sustainability systems, the fair is unveiling a new aquaculture exhibit for opening weekend. Oyster Alley, located in State Fair Park across from Cow Palace, invites visitors to slurp samples of Hooper’s Island, Fishing Creek, Honga Tonk, and Shore Thing oysters while learning about the Chesapeake Bay from the likes of the Oyster Recovery Partnership and Coastal Conservation Association.

“Maryland agriculture is such an economy engine,” Brashear says. “Whether you’re talking farms, poultry, nurseries, or aquaculture, we’re all of those things here.”

In keeping with its local focus, the fair’s Maryland Foods Pavilion will be back in full swing with its famous fried-green tomatoes, buttered corn on the cob, and fan-favorite yogurt peach sundaes, all sourced from neighboring farms.

The pavilion’s director Stan Dabkowski says that the fair’s local food initiative started as an army tent on the Midway in 1983, and has since grown to feature everything from crab cakes and pit beef sandwiches to fried corn fritters and turkey legs.

“Back then, farm-to-table wasn’t a buzzword like it is now,” Dabkowski says. “People enjoy eating fresh food that hasn’t been put through the ringer and shipped 3,000 miles before it gets to you.”

Of course, in typical fair fashion, the Midway will also boast the requisite funnel cakes, cotton candy, and cinnamon rolls, as well as a brand new concoction—deep-fried Oreos wrapped in bacon.

Yet another draw will be the return of the fair’s grand parade, a kickoff event that has taken a hiatus since 1981. As a celebration of the 135-year milestone, organizers are bringing it back on Sunday, August 28 at 6 p.m. with classic color guards, marching bands, and vintage vehicles.

“As all things kind of ebb and flow, what’s old is new again,” Brashear explains. “We thought it would be a neat thing to come back with.”

Brashear estimates that the fair will attract upwards of 500,000 guests this season.

“From that annual Ferris wheel ride to having your family Christmas photo taken, it’s just an unforgettable experience,” she says. “So many people who came as kids are now toting along their grandkids. It’s nice to look out across the Midway and see multiple generations walking hand in hand.”