Gavin Saul is a busy guy this week. There’s an embryology exhibit to man. He’s involved in ham radio activities. And he’s playing viola with Jeff Robbins in a “Mountain Music, Stories and Dance” show while his hen, Yolk, wanders nearby.
It’s just another week at the Prince William County Fair for the 13-year-old Manassas resident.
The fair, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, will be at the county fairgrounds in Manassas through Saturday. Billed as the largest county fair in Virginia, the event put on by the Veterans Farm Club usually draws about 85,000 visitors each year and employs more than 300 volunteers.
And while some things have changed over the years — for example, most of the livestock now comes from surrounding counties since farms in Prince William have dwindled — there’s a lot that hasn’t, said Edward Roseberry, the secretary of the board of directors for the fair. Chiefly, the fair remains a family affair at heart, with people trying to keep the area’s agricultural traditions alive.
Roseberry’s father, Kite, was one of the founders of the fair. Edward has been working with the fair since 1992 and attending since the mid-1950s, he said.
“It’s a family curse,” Roseberry joked just inside the fair entrance on opening night last week. “It’s like a family here, you reconnect with people you only see at fair time. A lot of people have gotten involved because their parents were involved. We’re just trying to carry on the tradition.”
Roseberry talked about the fair’s early years, from hurricanes blowing away the tents that used to house livestock (exhibits are now housed in buildings) to a group getting together to grow and sell corn to keep the money-losing event afloat in its second year.
Meanwhile, Robbins started playing “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” on one of the instruments he uses in his show, many of which he or his father made. Robbins plays mandolin, fiddle, dulcimer and banjo to introduce audiences to Virginia’s musical heritage.
“It’s old-time music, the stuff that preceded bluegrass,” Robbins said. “It’s the old folk songs that have been in our history for years. We’re trying to keep the heritage alive. We don’t hear these in schools anymore, they’re not teaching them a whole lot of folk music, so I’m trying to pick it up at the fairs.”
He demonstrated his “One String Pork-n-Bean Guitar” before the show: a tin can and a guitar string attached to a two-by-four piece of wood. He played it with a can opener and a plastic guitar pick. He had several on hand and during his show, kids from the audience joined him in playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Saul’s chicken likes to get in on the action when Robbins plays. They park her on a bale of hay and she scratches at it when Robbins plucks his banjo, Saul said. They tried to demonstrate, but having a reporter nearby seemed to make Yolk a little shy.
“She’s stressed out,” Saul said, as Yolk wandered back and forth, declining to scratch.
Eager fair-goers were lined up outside the gate not far from where Robbins was playing, while cows queued up in the nearby dairy barn for their evening milking.
Kraig Smith, a cattle farmer from Catlett in Fauquier County, was supervising his two dairy cows, Donna and Diva. Both were attached to the milking machinery as other cows waited for a turn and several people stopped to watch. Smith’s family has been bringing animals to the fair for more than 40 years.
Smith also will have several beef cows at the fair later this week. Like Robbins and Roseberry, the 21-year-old farmer is carrying on the family tradition. He said he continues to come to the fair each year because it’s good public relations for the dairy farm industry.
“Most of the kids coming in have never seen cows and pigs before,” Roseberry said. “Thirty years ago, a lot of them came from farms and were aware of what’s going on on farms. We’ve lost that, so they have to come here to see the chickens and the animals.”
And if they grab some funnel cake and a ride on the Ferris wheel while they’re at it, that’s fine, too.