For the next three weeks, Southern Maryland residents will be able to peruse produce, inspect livestock and mingle on the midway as the annual county fair season unfolds across the region.

From stuffed ham in St. Mary's to horseshoe pitching in Calvert to the crowning of Queen Nicotina in Charles, the area's agricultural heritage will be reflected in nearly all the events, which draw thousands of people from around Southern Maryland and neighboring areas.

"Every year, people want to commercialize, but we say no," said Joe Hillwig, president of the Charles County Fair Board, which launches the 76th annual Charles County Fair on Thursday. The fair maintains its down-home atmosphere with perennial favorites such as square dancing, the livestock sale and 4-H contests in dozens of categories and divisions.

"People enjoy the agricultural part of the fair, and we're not changing that," Hillwig said. "Anyone can have a carnival."

This year, those attending the three Southern Maryland fairs will be treated to highlights such as the exotic Kung Fu Lion Dance troupe of Calvert County, the creepy-but-popular reptile show in Charles and the traditional St. Mary's staple of stuffed ham.

"It's, well, it's peculiar," said Ann Richards, a longtime St. Mary's fair organizer, in describing the dish that some say originated in the county with a group of Jesuit brothers. Another version of its origins is that the salt-cured treat evolved from a slave recipe for hog jowls stuffed with greens, peppers and onions, she said. "It makes use of the things growing around you."

The St. Mary's County Fair, set for Sept. 23 to 26, will feature the Mapapa acrobats from Kenya, the Jolly Gents' barbecue, a new Queen of Tolerance, quilt-making, floral arrangements and a photography exhibit.

Folks in Calvert County, meanwhile, are working to ensure that their fair, scheduled for Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, comes off as a blend of the traditional (horse pulls, duck and pig races, horseshoe pitching) and the more modern (Elvis look-alike contest, karaoke, magic shows).

"We don't have a huge fair, but you'll see people you don't even know smiling at you and saying hello," said Joyce Avery, treasurer of the Calvert County Fair Board. "You don't see any sad faces--it's a country fair."