At the Charles County Fair, some of the sights are like old standards -- everyone recognizes them, and they help to define the event.
Familiar scenes on the fairgrounds south of La Plata include fairgoers enjoying funnel cake and corn dogs after being whipped around on the Gravitron ride, a few nervous animals being gussied up for judging, members of the Bowling family taking home hordes of awards for their produce and, if recent years are any indication, at least a little nasty weather.
People who take in the Charles County Fair generally know what to expect.
That is, unless they stroll through the Hobby Exhibit Hall.
"I would say that this is the hardest building to judge," said Lannie Lebo as she visited the hall. Lebo, a resident of La Plata, will serve as an art judge for the Calvert County Fair in two weeks because judges are not allowed to preside in the counties where they live.
"You never know what you're going to get, it changes so much every year. You have to know what all this stuff is and be able to figure out how much skill and how much time it takes to get it all together," Lebo said.
In the semicircle of display cases are the crown jewels assembled by followers of a miscellany of hobbies, pastimes or obsessions. What connects these disparate collections of stuff is that each embodies the enthusiasm and care of the person who put it together.
In one row, a piece of wood bears a multicolored crush of 34 commemorative bracelets supporting and promoting various causes, the original Lance Armstrong Livestrong band among them. Down from that is an assemblage of sepia-colored patent forms, one dated Feb. 18, 1878, from a fellow named Thomas Edison for a "Phonograph or Speaking Machine." With it are patent drawings of Betty Boop and Porky Pig.
A young girl walks by and remarks, "I have to show my brother those or he will die." She refers not to scrapbooks, expertly carved woodwork or model cars but to a handful of plastic trading-card sheets filled with Yu-Gi-Oh cards.
The thrill for fair volunteer Patsy Kragh is watching youngsters race into the hall to see how their entries placed in the competition. Alex Landicho, 4, and his brother Marc, 6, were rapturous in their excitement on discovering that Alex's collection of model airplanes had won a blue ribbon -- first place -- and that Marc's assortment of dinosaurs had won a red for second place.
This year, variety marked the children's entries. Volunteer Lexi Dachenko recalled that arrowhead collections often dominated youngsters' submissions in the past -- so much so that fair organizers banned the category, only to be forced to reinstate it when child after child arrived with them. This year there was only one arrowhead collection.
Legos seemed to take the arrowheads' place this year; a number of toy-block structures filled a case. Michael Link, a 12-year-old from Port Tobacco, won a blue ribbon in the Legos category for his enormous constructions of two "Star Wars" vehicles, the Death Star and an Imperial Star Destroyer, which he said were composed of roughly 3,400 and 3,100 Lego pieces, respectively.
But it is not all child's play in the Hobby Hall. Nick Flagg, 57, won a purple Best of Show ribbon for his massive tiger carousel figure. He has entered a wood-carved and stipple-painted carousel animal every year in the Charles and Calvert fairs since 1998, deciding to try his hand at making them after his daughter gave him a book about carousel rides. He said he does it for love and therapy -- first place comes with a prize of $5.
"They give me a special trophy in Calvert," he said. "I asked them why, and they said, 'So you keep coming back.' "
He has made 13 or 14 of the animals, and, with the tiger, he has 10 in his possession. He and several others are seeking a place in La Plata to erect a carousel featuring his creations.
The steady annual volume of hobby entries contrasts starkly with the Food Preservation contests next door, where a volunteer bemoaned that each year, fewer items are entered as the number of people who know how to can food at home, and have the time to do it, diminishes. The waning of some rural traditions can also be seen in the Garden Hall, with the scant number of stick-tobacco entries. Katie Dalsey, one of 12 contestants in the 70th Queen Nicotina pageant, listed smoking as one of her dislikes. Erica Hamor took the honor as well as a $1,000 scholarship.
The fair is as popular as ever. The four-day event, which opened Thursday and concludes this evening, is still cause for letting school out on Friday of fair week. Annual attendance averages roughly 64,000, dipping a little last year to about 40,000 when a tornado scare forced an evacuation on the opening day of the fair.
Tradition is a mainstay of the fair. What some perceive as challenges are not left unanswered. Members of the military who were home on leave were honored during the Queen Nicotina pageant. Debbie Prohaska of Port Tobacco won a blue ribbon for her quilt honoring her late father and many other veterans who served in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
And the pageant's master of ceremonies mentioned that a federal court ruled last week against the use of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in California schools. He then led the crowd in the pledge, under God and all.
Ann Schaecher wields shears while helping her sister Jeanne Herbert groom Jeanne's Boer goat Katie for a 4-H contest Thursday at Charles County's fair.
Stephen Norris III of Lusby won a first-place blue ribbon and a Best of Show purple for preserved beans.