MCHENRY, MD. -- It is the second day of the Garrett County Fair and a steady stream of competitors are pulling in to the fairground's spacious meadows overlooking the northern fingers of Deep Creek Lake on Route 219 in western Maryland.
In trailers, horse boxes, pick-up trucks and cars they arrive, bearing their entries for the 34th annual competitions. The fair displays the biggest and the best of the county's livestock, agriculture and homemaking skills.
It's a ritual that is repeated countless times each summer all over rural America. But unlike mammoth state fairs, where there's more asphalt than grass and finding one's way around is like negotiating Arlington without a map, the Garrett County Fair is a relaxed, community affair where visitors seem more like family friends invited along for the outing.
Yet over the course of the six-day event, which is always held in the second full week in August, over 50,000 people come to see more than 1,400 entrants put forth their best efforts..
Besides the agricultural, livestock, craft and home economic competitions, they enjoy carnival rides and games of chance and skill, bonny baby contests and pet shows, tractor-pulling contests and a demolition derby, nightly concerts -- from country and western to gospel and bluegrass -- and a wide range of commercial exhibits as varied as chain saws and Jacuzzis to the taxidermy display of the Stanton family of Midlothian, Md.
All this comes for the daily admission price of $5 a head. And that includes parking.
Garrett, Maryland's most western and most agricultural county, thrusts like a fist between Pennsylvania in the north and West Virginia in the south. It's a county of rolling, blue-green hills and fertile valleys where the point-counterpoint of wheat, corn and plowed fields creates a patchwork as intricate and appealing as the quilts for which the area is noted.
No industrial smog or diesel fumes mar the clear air here. The natural beauty and year-round recreational facilities make tourism almost as important an income producer as agriculture. Green-hungry and city-tired visitors come from Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Today the fairgrounds are looking at their manicured best. Below them the waters of Deep Creek Lake sparkle in the hot August sun. Occasionally the V-ed wake of a power boat breaks on the shore, or the colorful sail of a catamaran is glimpsed between the trees.
In the open-sided barns the livestock is being put in place to await the judging. The smell of sweet hay permeates the dairy barn where black and white Holstein heifers munch contently next to sleek Guernseys and sleeker Jerseys.
Competitor Denis Bender changes forever the way I'll view a cow by explaining to me the fine points of what the judges will be looking for in the assembled heifers -- well-formed udders, deep bodies, good sharp angles around the shoulders and the straight "top line" of the heifer's back.
Over in the sheep barn, Blaine Bowser and his family from the nearby town of Bittinger are checking their entries. Regular competitors at the fair, they have taken, as Bowser says, "our share of blue ribbons over the years." His Dorset, Suffolk and North County Cheviot ewes jostle each other in their pens. One lone Jacob sheep sits regally in almost disdainful calm.
This four-horned sheep -- two horns curl up over the ears and two curl down behind them -- presents a special challenge for shearers. "They're kind of like cactus," explains Bowser, who is strong enough to lift the huge animal effortlessly, "They gouge you every time you turn around."
Looking like the incarnation of the Mary of nursery rhyme fame, young Christy Hoalcralt and her 6-month-old Dorset lamb Sherl are having their pictures taken. Sherl is clean and cuddly and beautifully behaved. She ought to be welcome in any school.
My nose tells me I'm near the pig barn before I see it. Here the noises are the double basses of the fair's animal symphony. I count nine piglets nursing furiously on a Landrace sow owned by Robert and Katherine Lowdermilk, but I'm assured there's another in there somewhere. The pigs have names like Petunia and Porky, Sunshine and Cornsilk, and their washed, pink skins gleam in the shade.
Beyond the pigs come the poultry -- hens, ducks, geese and turkeys pecking in syncopation around their cages. In another barn, rabbits are watched over by their young owners. Goats named Priscilla and Cleo are in an enclosure near the stables where well-groomed Appaloosa, Arabian and quarter-horses are stalled alongside Welsh and Shetland ponies.
I leave the animals reluctantly and make my way to the big, cool exhibit sheds where Irmgard Koschielniak of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service is overseeing the registering of the entries in the baking and canning competitions.
A smiling, transplanted Austrian, she finds a lot of similarities between Garrett County and her homeland in the mountains south of Vienna. "It's the misty mornings," she explains, "the smell of pastures and cows that don't feed on silage, and the Mennonite and Amish children that are big-eyed and shy and hide behind their mother's skirts ... "
Edward Brockmeyer arrives from the town of Accident with the German chocolate cake, the muffins, and his Aunt Marcella's Hot Milk Cake that he baked the day before. He divides his time between a real estate business in Baltimore and an 1865 house he's restoring in Accident.
"Everything in the kitchen except the electric stove is from before 1950," he tells me. Brockmeyer, one of the increasing number of men entering the baking competitions, also collects cookbooks published before that date, most of which he's picked up at flea markets and porch sales in the area.
Opal Fazenbaker, a former nutrition aide with the county, brings her rye bread, biscuits and sugar cookies. She's followed by Eileen Schlosnagle, a pretty Londoner who met her Garrett County husband in San Francisco. They came back to the area a year ago, tired of city life and indifferent schools and lured by the beauty of the area and the presence of family. "My husband's father still farms here," she said, "and my son can make hay with his grandfather." Today son Leo is manfully toting two enormous zucchini bound for the 4-H competitions in the next building.
Bertha Sanders and her daughter, Lydia Dawson, come laden down with entries. Both blue ribbon winners many times over, they compete against each other in some categories. Lydia's daughter Brandi has caught the bug too. Only 8, she's already a veteran of the baking wars.
On the other side of the baked goods display is the canning section. Like elements in a giant stained glass window, jars of red currant juice, peaches, black cherries, raspberry syrup and pears are arrayed near watermelon pickles and canned beets and beans.
My eye catches canned meat -- poultry, pork and beef -- a practice that is becoming rarer each year, I'm told, as freezers replace traditional ways of preserving. The Amish and Mennonite residents of the county still do a lot of it, but they rarely enter the fair. Competition is not part of their philosophy of life.
The next morning: The judges in the baking competition assemble at 9 a.m. to begin their work. Mary Kay Kovach, a retired dietitian; Sally Williams, a home economics teacher in nearby Allegheny County; and Carol Williams -- no relation to Sally -- whose credentials as a judge stem from her reputation as a terrific cook, have all arrived without breakfast.
As the entries in each category are put before them, Carol cuts three small samples of each one by turn and passes them around. One tiny bite and the three judges decide whether this entry merits further consideration or should be eliminated right away. They're looking for good appearance, taste and texture, no nasty aftertastes, and where there are multiple pieces submitted, such as in the cookie and biscuit competitions, consistency.
All three have been judging competitions like this for years and can sniff out imitation chocolate or a sneaked-in commercial mix like bloodhounds. They detect the difference between wild and cultivated blueberries with one bite and know just when government-surplus peanut butter has been used in a recipe. "It's got an oxidized taste," Mary Kay explains. "People don't store it properly once they open the can."
In the pie crust category the first entry is so tough that Carol, as official cutter, has difficulty in breaking off samples. That one gets axed right away. The next one breaks apart on touch but has a nice buttery flavor and is very tender. It gets put aside for further consideration. Another crust is not crimped and looks like the plain sister next to more elegant cousins, but it has a good taste and texture and is nicely browned all over. With a minimum of fuss and a surprising unanimity, the ribbons are awarded and the pie crusts are whisked away.
So it goes for over four hours of tasting cakes, breads, muffins, cookies, candies, sweet rolls, sticky buns, brownies and fudge. What seemed like a dream job at 9 a.m. becomes hard work by 11 and punishment by 1 p.m. But the three women, all of whom have volunteered their time, soldier on.
As the last categories are judged, people begin to arrive to see how they've fared. Sure enough, Brockelmeyer has two blue ribbons for his German chocolate cake and his Aunt Marcella's Hot Milk Cake. Bertha Sander's Swedish Tea Ring has triumphed again, and Opal Fazenbaker's rye bread jauntily sports its blue badge.
New champions are congratulated, old ones affirmed, losers consoled. Only the judges look a little worse for the wear. But, then, they have a whole year to recover before the next fair.
If you're planning to visit next year's fair, you can get information on events and places to stay in Garrett County by calling 301-334-1948. Information on the fair itself can be had from Dale Glotfelty, president of the fair, at 301-245-4279.
Here are some blue-ribbon winners from the 1990 Garrett County Fair:
EDWARD BROCKMEYER'S AUNT MARCELLA'S HOT MILK CAKE (20 servings)
Brockmeyer usually just sifts confectioners' sugar on top of this cake, but he says it is very good with a chocolate icing or with whipped cream and toasted coconut.
2 cups sifted flour
2 cups sugar
1 generous teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons butternut or vanilla flavoring
Place dry ingredients together in large bowl. Place milk and butter in small saucepan and heat until butter is melted. While butter/milk mixture is heating, beat eggs and add to dry ingredients. Then add the milk mixture and the butternut or vanilla, and beat with electric mixer or by hand until batter is smooth.
Pour batter into a greased and floured 3-inch deep, 8-inch-round cake pan and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes and remove from the pan.
Per serving: 148 calories, 3 gm protein, 29 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 49 mg sodium.
OPAL FAZENBAKER'S RYE BATTER BREAD (Makes 1 loaf)
Fazenbaker says she's been making this bread so long she doesn't remember where the recipe came from, but she may have gotten it at a Gold Medal Flour workshop many years ago.
1 package active dry yeast
1 1/4 cup warm water, (115 degrees)
2 tablespoons shortening
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup rye flour
2 1/2 cups white flour, approximately
About 2 tablespoons melted butter for greasing pan
In large mixing bowl dissolve yeast in warm water. Add shortening, sugar, salt, rye flour and 1 cup white flour. Beat two minutes on medium speed, scrape bowl frequently. Stir in remaining flour until smooth. Knock down dough from sides of the bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place about 30 minutes.
Knock dough down thoroughly. Spread evenly in a greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. Smooth top of loaf by patting into shape with floured hand. Let rise until batter is one inch from top of pan.
Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until the loaf is brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Brush with butter, remove from pan and cool.
Per 1/4-loaf serving: 500 calories, 11 gm protein, 84 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 1128 mg sodium.
BERTHA SANDER'S SWEDISH TEA RING (20 servings)
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons shortening
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package yeast
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
FOR THE FILLING:
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup mixed candied fruit*
1/4 cup apricot marmalade*
1/4 cup maraschino cherries, halved (optional)
FOR THE ICING:
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon water
Heat milk to warm, about 115 degrees. Place in a large bowl and stir in shortening, sugar, salt, yeast, beaten egg and vanilla. Gradually add the flour and mix well.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead lightly, using a little more flour if the dough is sticky. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with a towel and allow to rise until doubled in bulk. Turn out onto a floured surface and shape into a rectangle approximately 12-by-18 inches.
Spread softened butter evenly over surface. Sprinkle on the brown sugar mixed with the cinnamon and then scatter raisins and candied fruit evenly over the surface.
Roll up like a jelly roll and form into a circle. Place on a cookie sheet that you have greased. With kitchen scissors, make cuts every inch to within a 1/2 inch of the bottom of the dough. Then lay alternate pieces back toward the center of the ring and the others outwards. Cover and let rise until dough doubles in size.
Put 1/2 teaspoon of the apricot marmalade on each slice and arrange the cherries decoratively around the ring. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven and bake for 20 minutes. Let cool.
To make the icing, mix the sugar and butter, then add enough water to bring the icing to spreading consistency. Ice the cake decoratively around the edges.
* If you can't find the marmalade, you can substitute apricot, peach or red currrant jelly. Chopped pecans are a good substitute for candied fruits.
Per serving: 210 calories, 3 gm protein, 34 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 28 mg cholesterol, 114 mg sodium.
Anne Mullin Burnham is a veteran fair competitor from her childhood days in North Co. Dublin, Ireland. She is now a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.