Long ago, county fairs were a way for everyone to take a break from farming and all the drudgery that entailed and get together with neighbors to eat, socialize and see who could grow the biggest pumpkin. Most of the area’s fairs still at least partially reflect the agrarian days of yore, but now they’ve expanded to embrace modern sensibilities. While there are themes that appear throughout most fairs — pig racing seems to be a big one — each celebration strives to offer a little something that makes it stand out.
Fairfax County 4-H Fair and Carnival
What sets it apart: Free for all
At the Fairfax County 4-H Fair and Carnival you can get all of the fair goodness you’d expect — goat-milking demonstrations, vegetable competitions, musical performances — but here you can get it all for free. The cost of admission is a big fat zero, though carnival rides, food and parking come at a price. Still, all the ranch roping (Saturday at 3:30 p.m.) you could want for at the low, low price of nothing is still a pretty good deal.
Frying Pan Farm Park, 2709 West Ox Road, Herndon, Va.; Thu.-Sun., various times, free.
Howard County Fair
What sets it apart: Car carnage
Have an old car you just can’t figure out how to get rid of? Why not smash it into other old cars? At the Howard County Fair Demolition Derby (Wednesday & Aug. 12, 7 p.m., $25 to enter, $10 to watch), drivers 18 and up can enter one of two contests to see who can take a licking and keep on ticking (there are a ton of rules and you must register in advance; go to howardcountyfair.org for both). Other smashing ideas include the square-dancing demonstration and the coon mule jumping competition.
2210 Fairgrounds Road, West Friendship, Md.; Sat. through Aug. 12, 8 a.m.-11 p.m., $5.
Montgomery County Agricultural Fair
What sets it apart: Wet dog smell
Lots of dogs do tricks like sit, stay, whatever. The Chesapeake DockDogs have a higher ambition: leaping off of platforms into big tanks of water. Their shows (Aug. 12 & 13, various times) are free with admission to the fair, which also features a miniature horse-pulling competition Aug. 11 at 4 p.m. (the horses are pulling, not being pulled), a special kid zone and the “moo-ternity ward,” which is just what it sounds like.
Montgomery County Agricultural Center, 501 Perry Parkway, Gaithersburg, Md.; Aug. 11, 3 p.m.-midnight, Aug. 12-19, 10 a.m.-midnight, $12.
Arlington County Fair
What sets it apart: The road show
Why is it that watching people walk past you slowly is so much fun? The parade at the Arlington County Fair showcases local nonprofits, fair sponsors and businesses. There will probably be at least one truckload of adorable children in their sports uniforms. After the parade, head off to ride some rides, check out some contests and eat some truly terrible-for-you-but-oh-so-delicious food.
Thomas Jefferson Community Center, 3501 Second St. South, Arlington; Aug. 16-20, various times, free; parade begins at Arlington Career Center, 816 S. Walter Reed Drive, Aug. 19, 10 a.m.
Maryland State Fair
What sets it apart: Arm warfare
The Maryland State Fair is also a (metaphorical) gun show. The State Armwrestling Championship — both men’s and women’s, in divisions divided by weight — gives fairgoers a chance to grasp at victory and possibly snap a stranger’s wrist. The Sept. 2 competition begins at 1:15 and ends with the grand finale at 4. Sure, you could just spend your time at the fair watching horse racing or checking out Goetze’s Candy Co. setting a new world’s record by building the largest Cow Tales, but what are you, chicken? If so, the poultry shows are Aug. 25 (10 a.m.) and Sept. 2 (8:30 a.m.).
Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road, Lutherville-Timonium, Md.; Aug. 24-Sept. 4, various times, $8.
Charles County Fair
What sets it apart: A smokin’ queen
Most fairs have their Corn Princess or their Peach Queen, but the Charles County Fair’s monarch possibly best reflects the county’s agricultural heritage. Queen Nicotina represents the area’s long history of tobacco farming. The winning contestant gets to sport the signature robe, which has two golden tobacco leaves on the back, and take home a $1,000 scholarship. The competition began in 1931 and has continued every year (except for one when that pesky WWII was on). If you miss her coronation on Sept. 14, there’s always the carnival, entertainment and, on Sept. 16, a pie-eating competition.
Charles County Fairgrounds, 8440 Fairground Road, La Plata, Md.; Sept. 14-17, various times, $5.
Great Frederick Fair
What sets it apart: Horses before carts
Maryland has a long history of horsing around, but people often forget that not all racing involves sitting on the horse. At the Great Frederick Fair you can see harness racing (Sept. 20-23, noon), where horses pull a buggy and must maintain a certain gait — galloping at full speed breaks the rules. You can also see horses in multiple parades of breeds, at the horse pull on Sept. 15 at 5 p.m., as well as the parade of horse-drawn vehicles on Sept. 23 at 1:30 p.m. One of the more misleadingly named non-horse activities is “It’s Fiber — Functional and Fun,” a fair-long expo that refers not to the colon-related kind, but to the animal-hair kind.
Frederick Fairgrounds, 797 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md.; Sept. 15, 2-10 p.m., $5; Sept. 16-23, 9 a.m.-10 p.m., $8.
DC State Fair
What sets it apart: No contest — it’s the contests
The sly shade-throwing of the DC State Fair’s name isn’t the only thing the one-day celebration has going for it. If you want contests that go beyond canning, this is the fair for you. In addition to traditional contests, you’ll find chili, homebrew, pupusa and mumbo sauce competitions (you have to register in advance for all of those). But wait! There’s more! You can just show up and enter hula hoop, limbo, sloppy Joe-eating, watermelon seed-spitting, ice cream-eating, ladies’ arm-wrestling and men’s whiskers competitions. Even your pet can get in on the action with costume contests, a pet/owner look-alike battle, a longest sit-stay event and fetching contests in both Frisbee and tennis ball varieties.
Waterfront Station, 375 and 425 M St. SW; Sept. 24, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., free.