To get to the fair from the Beltway, take Interstate 270 north toward Frederick. Exit at Rte. 124, (Montgomery County Village Avenue -- Quince Orchard Road). Take the second ramp, going west on Quince Orchard Road. Go to the first traffic light, turn left and follow the signs. Or, from Rockville, take Rte. 355 toward Gaithersburg and follow the signs.

Dozens of children were crowding into Hazel Staley's office last week to register their pigs, goats and other animals for the 32nd Montgomery County Fair, which will open Aug. 18.

"This place has been just a zoo," sighed Staley, the fair's secretary.

The fair was launched 32 years ago by a group of farmers who thought that children living in rural areas of the county should have a place to show the animals and crops they raised, and the products they made.

County fairs had previously been held in Rockville but were discontinued in the 1920s when the organizers went bankrupt.

Orginally a one-day affair featuring only a few exhibits, the Gaithersburg fair now boasts thousands of displays and lasts six days and nights.

The fair is one of the largest and, say fair buffs, one of the best county fairs east of the Mississippi. And it is still primarily a youngsters' showcase, with more than half the participants being under 15.

Staley has been working all year to prepare for the fair's thousands of visitors. A Montgomery native, she grew up with the Gaithersburg fair. As a teen-ager and a member of the 4-H Club, she showed her blue-ribbon pigs there.

Twenty years ago at the fair, Staley met a man she later married -- she was slicing ham in the dining room, he was nailing planks to build the gatehouse.

Getting people to volunteer their services to the fair, run by the Montgomery County Agricultural Center, has never been difficult, said Staley. For example, her 79-year-old mother for many years has been plucking crab meat from shells to make crab cakes to serve in the fairground's dining hall.

Roscoe Whipp, a retired farmer who in 1948 was a driving force in organizing the fair, this year is judging some of the livestock exhibits. In his younger years, he helped haul timber from one farm to another to build the exhibition buildings.

Inflation has not bypassed the county fair. A hundred years ago, when the fair was held in Rockville, the admission charge was 12 1/2 cents per person. This year Gaithersburg admission will be $3 for adults and $1 for children aged 10 to 15. Children under 10 will be admitted free.

More than 5,000 participants this year will show a total of more than 15,000 exhibits. One display meant to be eaten will be 3 1/2 tons of Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese -- 14 wheels of cheese weighting 500 pounds each.

Every year the fair honors a different animal, and this is the year of the swine. Posters will explain the best cuts of pork, how to buy them and how to cook them.

Judging goes on most of the time at the fair -- ribbons and prize money are awarded for the best lambs, steers, chickens, rabbits, cakes, embroidery and dozens of other categories. There is even a contest to judge the prettiest goat.

Since the fair's opening in 1948, the most popular event has been the horse pull, in which horses draw sleds loaded with weights. A tractor pull has been added and, for the first time this year, a four-wheel-drive pull will be introduced.

Strolling around the 32-acre fairground may help work up an appetite, and the fair organizers have made sure that no visitor goes hungry for lack of options.

The dining hall, which holds about 400 people, will feature a real country meal for $5 a person. Fried chicken and roast beef, plus home-grown tomatoes and corn on the cob delivered fresh each morning, will be available daily.

For dessert, a dairy bar run by the local Lion's Club will serve ice cream. Sandwiches and soft drinks will be available at six booths.

For the thrill seekers, there will be a midway at the far end of the fairground. The carnival, run by the Del and Travers Co., has a large Ferris wheel plus the usual rides and games.

An exhibit called Old MacDonald's Farm will offer a variety of animals for youngsters to pet and feed, and it promises to be packed on Aug. 19, kid's day at the fair.

"The nice thing about this fair," said Billy King, one of the founders, "is that city folk can see what we've grown up with. I remember, once, a kid said he'd never seen a chicken hatch. Now can you imagine that?"