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McCONNELLSBURG - Since 1920, the annual Fulton County Fair has been a staple of community life. More than just a celebration, however, the fair offers an  opportunity for the youth of the predominately rural area to learn habits of responsibility to others, caring for animals and healthy competition.

In fact, so strong is the emphasis on the fair as a teaching experience that the Fulton County Fair Association describes itself as a "nonprofit organization promoting agricultural education and community spirit."

"Kids today are not exposed to farm animals. Here they can see them close up," said Patrick Bard, fair board president, who has been with the fair in various capacities since the 1980s. "The young exhibitors also learn how to produce an animal that will do well in competition, and how to prepare their animals for showing."

Of course, there is a lot of fun that goes along with it. Indeed, the fair, running this year from August 14-20 at the Fulton County Fairgrounds, McConnellsburg, has become so well known that it now attracts about 1,700 to 2,000 people every day and "is growing every year," said Kirby Bishop, grounds manager.

Livestock, rifles and royalty

Youngsters present a variety of animals and food products. Food products are either homegrown and fresh from the field, or prepared. Some will be challenged in a Skillathon where they will have to identify not only different breeds of various species, such as cattle, sheep, goats, and swine, but also describe the different cuts of meat that can be derived from them.Still others will present the judges with the animals they have carefully groomed.

Judging of exhibits starts on Monday, August 15: all the judges have prior experience in their field of competition.

Some winners are fortunate enough to move on to higher levels of competition, such as last year's fair queen, Jill Palmer, who moved on to the state level, coming in among the top 10, and has now been elected as an officer with the Pennsylvania State Future Farmers of America.

The Fair Queen contest is for young women ages 16 to 20 and the Little Miss Fair Queen is for ages 5-9.

Each day has a different dedication, from Veterans' Day on Monday, August 15, to Senior Citizen's Day on Thursday, August 18, when visitors 65 and older are admitted free until 5 p.m. The bingo games will be held in the large white tent.

One of the most popular competitions is the air rifle and pistol shoot for youngsters; the one with the best score at the end of the week receives a ribbon. The contest has become in such demand that some adults have asked that the event be expanded to cover their age group.

Rides, races and rodeos

A big attraction is the midway, with everything from a Ferris wheel "with a beautiful light display," said Bishop, "to bumper cars and kiddie train rides."

"In the past, the main draw was the demolition derby," Bishop said, "but now the interest is the ATV drag races. The drivers can go from 5:30 p.m. on at a continuous rate."

"Sometimes I haven't been able to shut off the lights until 4 a.m.," Bard said. There is an entry fee for the ATV races.

Among the other events are the skid loader competition, the four-wheeler rodeo with its obstacle course, the pine box derby race, and the pulls with tractors, diesel 4x4 pickups, or pedal tractors.

The Penn State Master Gardeners of Fulton County will sponsor a program on building pollinator magnets for those who want to establish plants that will serve as food sources for bees, butterflies, and certain birds.

The midway has food trailers, but the stands with locally-prepared specialties - burgers and fries, smoked beef and pork, funnel cakes - are a big hit every year. "If anybody leaves hungry, there's something wrong," laughed Bishop.

From the oven to the Farm Show

Baked goods are always a highlight among the competitions, and several of them, such as the angel food cake, the Hershey's chocolate cake, and a pie (the fruit filling is different every year), move on to enter the Pennsylvania Farm Show competition in Harrisburg. A key requirement is that at least one ingredient has to be produced in Pennsylvania.

Of the 20 acres of fairgrounds, about a third is designated for parking and the rest is for the fair, so be prepared for some exercise.

Once the event is over, the organizers have no time to relax. "We hold a post-fair meeting, do an assessment of what worked and what didn't, and start planning for the next year. The entertainment is a primary interest as the bookings for the talent have to be set so far in advance," said Bishop.

When You Go:

The Fulton County Fair

August 14-20

Fulton County Fairgrounds, McConnellsburg

For information visit  www.fultoncountypafair.com/

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