For a group of bubbly eighth-graders from Archbishop Neale Catholic School in Port Tobacco, the 76th Charles County Fair was a bittersweet experience.

This was the last time the students at the private school would meet at the bleachers and walk the midway together as they had for as long as they could remember. Next year, they will be at different high schools, and the fair just won't be the same, they said on Friday. This weekend they planned to live it up.

"We've been together since kindergarten," said Andrew Willingham, 13. "We get together, we see everyone we know and ride the rides."

That was the game plan for about 80,000 other Southern Marylanders who converged at the fairgrounds in La Plata this weekend for an event that was equal parts open-air concert, livestock showcase and carnival. Rains from Hurricane Floyd delayed the fair's opening by a day and left the ground a little muddy, but sunshine had dried most areas by the early afternoon. Friday marked the second day off for Charles County students--classes were canceled because of bad weather on Thursday, and Friday was the traditional "Fair Day."

Fair Day and other aspects of the Charles County Fair make it an old-time country fair with none of the pretensions of big-city gigs. The mouth-watering funnel cakes are cooked by a local church group, not an out-of-state vendor. People marvel at good strawberry jam. And instead of loud barkers, there were folks like quiet 17-year-old Erinn Walsh of Clements, an accomplished chicken judge for 4-H.

"I've done this for nine years," Walsh said, counting wing feathers, checking abdominal capacity and looking for signs of egg production in the squawking bird she held. "Once, there was a chicken that used to be a rooster but they had sex-changed it to a hen [at a University of Maryland research lab]. That was interesting to judge."

A few yards away, the Hobby Building stood as a testament to out-of-the-ordinary things people do in their spare time. Notable collections included countless little brand stickers taken from bananas and row after row of Pez candy dispensers. Judges also evaluated scrapbooks, poetry and cars made of Legos.

"You never know what you're going to get in this building," said Lannie Lebo, who has overseen the hobby exhibits for 21 years, lasting even through an ordeal that involved someone's prized snakeskin collection. "Since the county has grown so much, there is a lot more participation."

Even without a map, fair-goers could have navigated the grounds simply by following the noises: the clucking, mooing, baaing, honking cacophony of the animal show, the squeals from kids on one of the fair's 35 rumbling midway rides, the ecstatic "I won!" yelps from the baking or pickling contests, the warbling karaoke performers and the strains of school bands.

But in a barn removed from all the midway madness, 13-year-old Amanda Hancock, of La Plata, was shearing her sheep, named Albert, for an upcoming contest. In this corner of the fair, there were only two sounds: Elvis crooning from a weathered radio and the whir of Hancock's clippers as tufts of Albert's wool fell to the ground like white cotton candy.

"It's just fun," Hancock said, trying to come up with a reason she comes to the fair every year. "I don't really know why. You just see everyone and it's fun."

Then she shrugged and went back to Albert's haircut and her dreams of first prize.