- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
It’s all in place — hand-carved carousel animals, pig races, hundreds of live animals, scores of vegetables, arts and crafts displays, carnival rides and even 300-plus-pound pumpkins.
The St. Mary’s County Fair opened Thursday evening and will continue through Sunday evening.
Betty and Norris Shepherd have been in charge of the agricultural building, where farm and garden produce is displayed, for 30 or 40 years, they said.
“I love it,” Betty Shepherd said of the annual volunteer work, which results in the couple spending 12 hours or longer in the days leading up to the fair and during its four-day run.
She said the fair gets anywhere from 800 to 1,100 produce entries each September — everything from hot peppers and melons to herbs and honey.
“We enter stuff, too,” she said, including nut displays.
Betty Shepherd said she enjoys seeing children and adults wander into the building wide-eyed as they take in all of the colors and shapes of vegetables on display. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the prettiest building on the lot,” she said.
And the centerpieces of the exhibits in the vegetable building are often the giant orange and white pumpkins entered by local farmers.
The Russell family of Clements entered five large orange pumpkins in this year’s fair. Walter Russell said they probably have about 200 others still in their field ready to sell.
“We grow them on plastic, plant them wide and give them a good diet,” he said, summing up the secret to the large pumpkins. That diet includes a specific mix of fertilizers along with extra calcium nitrate, he said.
Russell admitted that the large pumpkins are far from organic and that he does a lot of spraying to keep out disease and insects.
The pumpkins, which routinely top a couple hundred pounds each (the fair record was set by the Russells in 2009 with a pumpkin that weighed 452 pounds), are hard to handle. Generally, Russell said, they will roll one onto a heavy-duty burlap sack and two or three people will lift it by holding onto the bag.
The Russells enter more than 200 vegetables each September, enough to compete in pretty much every category available at the St. Mary’s County Fair. “That’s our business, you know,” Betty Russell said.
She would not say how much prize money they tend to bring home each year, but the award money for most categories of between $2 and $6 can add up.
Some of the premium categories, like finest tobacco or largest pumpkin, offer awards of up to $25 or $30 for first place.
“It’s all a game,” complete with friendly competition among farmers and gardeners, Betty Russell said.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it,” she said of the farming profession. “It’s a difficult operation, but somebody’s got to feed the world.”
Elsewhere on the fairgrounds Wednesday, Dick Dement of Newburg was with several other members of the Southern Maryland Carousel Group. He said the nonprofit has hand-carved 48 animals and two chariots during the last seven years, and hopes to find a home somewhere in Southern Maryland to present the wooden menagerie.
Each wooden animal is made of as many as 150 separate pieces of wood, carved before being attached together and then painted, Dement said. The group has several of the carousel pieces on display this week.
The Farmers and Homemakers Association for about 15 years held its own fair for black residents of St. Mary’s County during the era of segregation. That fair was combined with the St. Mary’s County Fair in 1964. There is an exhibit at the fairgrounds this week’s commemorating the Farmers and Homemakers County Fair with photographs and other memorabilia.
Dozens of volunteers get the fair up and running, but the buck ultimately stops with Ann and John Richards. John Richards has been the president of the St. Mary’s County Fair Association since 1984, which makes Ann the first lady. “John and I have been doing this for 30 years,” Ann Richards said.
As the two scurried around the fairgrounds Wednesday to make sure everything was going as planned, Ann paused to thank the many volunteers who make the fair happen each year. “They enjoy being here,” she said. “Some will say it’s their civic duty.”
For Ann, the payoff is watching as residents, especially children, come into the buildings for the first time after the exhibits have been judged. “They love getting the ribbons, more than the couple dollars,” she said.
If you go
The St. Mary’s County Fair exhibit buildings will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. The carnival rides will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. The fair parade begins at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.