Annual 4-H and FFA Fair: 140 Years of Carroll County Tradition
A historical perspective on the celebration of agriculture in Carroll County and the birth of the 4-H Fair.
Historically the summer and end of harvest events have played an important role in Carroll County because of our agricultural roots.
The history of this week’s Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair at the Carroll County Agricultural Center lends an extra insight into the traditional family values that are celebrated in Carroll County summers.
Before 1865, the business of farming was, for the most part, a subsistence existence. Farmers were essentially self-sufficient.
However, after the Civil War, farmers became increasingly “dependent on creditors, merchants and railroads for their livelihoods. These relationships created opportunities for economic gain but also obligations, hardships, and risks that many farmers did not welcome,” notes James I. Stewart of Reed College, whose scholarly body of work is dedicated to this period of agriculture and economics.
During this agricultural era in history, a “program of events” found in an 1871 publication of the American Sentinel, refers to a “Grand Exhibition of Farm machinery under the auspices of the Carroll County Agriculture Society on the Fair Grounds, Westminster, MD.”
However, research indicates that the first mention of a Carroll County fair occurs tangentially in the days immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863. In Recollections, Dr. Joshua Hering describes, “A temporary camp was made in a field on the Fairground Hill, immediately to the left of the turnpike.”
Why this area, north and east of Colonial Avenue and East Main Street in Westminster was called “Fairground Hill” as early as 1863 remains a mystery to be further researched, although that falls well within the time frame of "the golden age of the agricultural fair," according to agricultural historian and educator, Kenyon Butterfield, which spanned two decades from 1850-70 .
Economic historians note that the period between 1861 to 1895, during the Long Depression, witnessed the most profound agricultural unrest in the country, which, in part, has resulted in economic and political repercussions that remain a part of public policy to this day.
The first authoritative mention of an organized agricultural fair event in Carroll County occurs in 1869. Nancy Warner writes in her book, Carroll County Maryland, A History, on January 11, 1869, the Carroll County Agricultural Society was organized “at a meeting at the Court House.
“Capital of $25,000 was raised through the sale of 500 shares of stock at $50 per share. Thirty acres of land was bought between the present Fair Street and Malcolm Drive.”
It is believed that the first agricultural fair in Carroll County may have taken place on July 4, 1869 on East Main Street in Westminster.
President Ulysses Grant visited the Carroll County Agricultural Fair on October 1, 1873, according to Warner. He “arrived in Westminster at 12:30 p.m. for a ‘day at the fair.’ After a reception at the railroad depot the president, waited upon by the mayor and City Council, visited the fair, toured the town… the Western Maryland College grounds… At 5:20 p.m. the president’s train left Westminster for Baltimore.”
In 1877, the year before the first Maryland State Fair event that we now know as occurring in Timonium, we would have only had to walk to Fair Avenue on the east side of Westminster to attend the Maryland State Fair.
That was the year that the Maryland State Fair was in Westminster on East Main Street according to Warner’s history of Carroll County.
“The Western Maryland Railroad provided a round trip ticket from Baltimore for $1.35, including admission to the fair. Omnibuses carried passengers from the Westminster depot to the fair grounds for a fee of 10 cents one way.”
Five years later the fair property on East Main Street in Westminster was sold.
The current Carroll County 4-H and FFA Fair celebrates its roots going back to a picnic held August 14, 1897 at the Otterdale Schoolhouse, in Taneytown, according to a history published in the 1997 fair guide.
The fair moved to Westminster in 1954, to the Carroll County Agriculture Center, which was established as a private organization on March 20, 1954, by a group of visionary leaders according to retired extension agent Robert L. Jones.
Charles F. Brehm, Charlotte Conway, Lester F. Stem, Walter V. Bennett, Violet M. Coshun, Landon C. Burns, Randall G. Spoerlein and Stewart D. Young purchased the land at the end of an old dirt lane off Gist Road.