Early autumn evenings can seem like a call to bask in the waning warmth of the season, and the annual St. Mary's County Fair happily provides a venue for such outdoor indulgences.

The fair, which opened Thursday and concludes today at the fairgrounds south of Leonardtown, attracts 50,000 to 55,000 visitors each year, according to the volunteers who plan and manage it.

Fairgoers come to renew acquaintances, to see the exhibits and to watch the contests, alongside other pursuits.

"I always enjoy the Queen of Tolerance pageant and the exhibits. My husband loves the horse pulls. And we're seeing people we don't get to see all year long," said Kit Pilkerton, sitting at a picnic table Thursday evening.

Seated across the table, 8-year-old Ryan Burns, who like all public school students in the county gets a day off for the fair, stated his interests plainly: "I like the fair 'cause of all the rides."

At the edge of the fairgrounds, David Edelen Jr. helped his 12-year-old son, David III, to prepare for the mini-lawn mower pulling contest. After David pulled a weighted sled 68 feet with his mower in his first attempt, the father and son team scurried to add more free weights to the yellow and white Sears model to move up to the next weight class. The trick, the father said, is to keep the front end of the sled from plunging into the clay and dragging or spinning out.

This year's fair began somewhat under a cloud for many 4-H members and other perennial exhibitors. On Monday, John Lee Goddard, 20, died in a car accident on Route 5, not far from the fairgrounds. He was a longtime member of the 4-H Club and son of Brenda and Leonard Goddard. Brenda Goddard is a constant presence at the fair with her cattle.

This week, as she was settling into the livestock barn, Kellie Hudson, 17, recalled other fairs. She remembered sleeping among livestock on straw bales with Lee and other 4-H members the night before the Calvert County Fair. It was easier to stay in the barn than to drive back to St. Mary's.

"It's not going to be the same," she said. "It's not going to be the same. He was like one of my brothers."

Kellie then presented her Nubian goat in the Fitness and Showing competition. Most of the 4-H kids arrived late at the fair Thursday because they had attended a prayer session held in Lee's memory. Some didn't come at all, and a few activities had to be canceled.

Marbeth Raley, sitting in the Rabbit and Poultry Hall, said that she has seen more than her share of county fairs and that the St. Mary's Fair is more family-oriented than most, so the Goddards' loss was deeply felt. She ticked off a catalogue of family names and the various livestock categories in which each usually showed well.

Nearby, Bradley Silvestro, Sarah Phelan and Caitlin Rose sat alone on bleachers across the field, marveling at the log sculptures of a hawk and two bear heads done earlier by Rick and Judy Pratt, whose artistic medium is chain saw sculpture.

"This is my favorite thing by far," Silvestro said.

He and his friends are students at Leonardtown High School, which is within eyesight of the fairgrounds across Point Lookout Road.

Leonardtown High is also where this year's Queen of Tolerance pageant winner, Heather Cooke, attends school as a senior. During the competition, contestants drew Teddy bears to which questions had been affixed.

The teenage girls competing for the title were asked about such topics as the balancing of freedom and security, what subjects they thought should be introduced into the school curriculum (Latin, one contestant said) and whether there was a viable future for growth in St. Mary's County.

For the soon-to-be queen, the question was whether sports stars and celebrities should be held to higher standards of conduct. Yes, she replied, they should.

Siblings Lindsey, 6, and Kyle Wood, 10, of Hollywood groom a Boer goat Thursday at the St. Mary's County Fair, near Leonardtown. The fair ends today. Below left, Leonardtown twins Kenny and Marty Zenthoefer, 11, take on the Paratrooper. Many fair veterans are mourning 4-H exhibitor John Lee Goddard, 20, who died in a traffic accident Monday.

Liz Cook, left, and Sarah Jenkins steer a Yorkshire pig toward its cleaning for a 4-H presentation.