A Short History of the Great Rockville Fair (1846-1932)
In 1846, James K. Polk was President of the United States, the U.S. flag had only 28 stars on it, and less than 1,500 people lived in Rockville. It also was the year that the Montgomery County Agricultural Society was organized, that began the tradition of the Montgomery County Fair in Rockville. A 12-member board of directors was chosen, headed by John P. C. Peter, President. The Montgomery County Fair opened two years later on the Pike in 1848, about where Richard Montgomery High School is today.
Discussions about farm improvements led to organized agricultural efforts. In 1846, Rockville farmers helped to establish the Montgomery County Agricultural Society. Two years later, Court House Square overflowed with displays of agricultural implements at the first county fair. The register of will opened his office for exhibits of household manufacturers. and the county clerk’s place teemed with fruits and vegetables. Women competed for cash prizes in the categories of homespun fabrics, fancy handwork, pickles, preserves, butter, cheese, and honey. Men exhibited livestock on the grounds of the Beall-Dawson House.
In a few years, the fair moved to Samuel T. Stonestreet’s woodlot adjacent to Saint Mary’s Church. The annual fair became a week-long gathering to showcase innovation, compete, and socialize. The property on the Rockville Pike was used until 1932, after which much of the land became Richard Montgomery High School.
From The Baltimore Sun Newspaper on September 20, 1848:
The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair held at Rockville, Maryland on Thursday and Friday last, the Journal of that place says, fully met the most sanguine expectation of its friends. The concourse of people was very large, and the stock, implements, and other articles exhibited, were the most perfect and beautiful. The Journal designs to publish the various reports of the committee—and the very able and interesting address of R. J. Bowie, Esq., and the other appropriate remarks submitted on the occasion, and says:
The exhibition was highly credible to the officers and members of the club, and to our country. We must reserve, for a more lengthy notice, the beautiful stock and implements of agriculture sent by gentlemen residing out of our county. We are gratified, indeed, that every thing went off gloriously, and the occasion will be long remembered by all who were present.
All the latest improved machinery in farm and garden implements were there, together with wagons, carriages, automobiles, trucks, and tractors. The display of cattle, sheep and hogs had long been one of the leading features at the Rockville Fair. Many fine herds of cattle, including Jerseys, Guernseys and other varieties were on exhibition. Two hundred of the finest horses in Montgomery County, along with many from the District of Columbia, nearby Virginia, and elsewhere were on exhibition.
Many other attractions were provided, including the midway, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, side shows, free exhibitions in front of the grandstand, horse racing, pony races, mule races, automobile contests, a parade of stock, horse show, dog show, poultry show, an automobile show, and clay pigeon shoots. The clay-pigeon shoot was one of the biggest events of its kind ever held in Maryland.
The various departments were filled to overflowing with high-class exhibits. The main exhibition hall was devoted to farm products and garden products, household displays, flowers, fruits, etc. The household department had an endless array of preserves, jellies, canned fruits, bread, cakes, candles, pies, fancy articles, and works of art. Sanders & Stayman and E. F. Droop & Co. of Washington, had excellent displays of musical instruments in this hall. Examples of locally grown produce were abundant in the main hall. Peaches, apples, plums, damsons, cantaloupes and watermelons were piled up in tempting array. The poultry show was also a place of interest. Many fine chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks and pigeons were being shown.
The Fair was always attended by large numbers of out-of-town visitors from other Maryland counties like Frederick, Howard, and Carroll counties, as well as attracting out-of-state fair-goers from the District of Columbia and neighboring counties in Virginia. Vehicles were assigned places all around the fairgrounds, and the park was completely surrounded. What is fascinating to me is, with all of these early cars painted in black, how on earth would you find your car?
The Race Track
If only the grandstands at the Rockville Fairgrounds could talk. The stories it could tell – it would tell stories of great racing – first on horses, bicycles and motorcycles, and then in cars. This grandstand could talk about the rich history of racing that took place on the one-third of a mile long dirt track which attracted high-power cars operated by some of the most noted speed kings of the country.
When Lewis Reed took these photographs in the early 1900s, the Rockville fairgrounds had undergone a significant upgrade. The grounds were enlarged by the addition of about five acres, allowing for the construction of a one-third of a mile race course along with a new grandstand, and improvements were made to the buildings and grounds, bringing them up-to-date in every respect. Montgomery County could well boast one of the nicest fairgrounds in the state.
Below is a previously unpublished Program of Speed Contests held in Rockville, Maryland, dated September 4 and 5, 1890. The program is from Lewis Reed’s collection. (click on photos for larger images)
Bicycle races became very popular throughout the country and were a novel event at the Rockville Fairgrounds as early as 1915. The track was a one-third of a mile dirt racing oval with wide, sweeping curves and a grandstand for spectators, which made for clear views. Notice the riders are in shirts and ties. In the background: according to the 1903 Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlas of the fairgrounds, these structures near the track were used as cattle pens.
Harness racing was one of the main attractions at the new race track before the introduction of the automobile and the subsequent popularity of racing cars. Horses were harnessed to lightweight one-seater buggies called sulkies, and would race around the track at a trot, as opposed to the galloping gait of horses ridden by jockeys.
First Auto Races at Rockville Fair Speedway
From The Baltimore Sun, August 27, 1923:
This is the first year that a Rockville Fair has continued through Saturday. The extra day was added this time as an experiment, the management believing that by substituting new features the additional day could be made a success. Automobile races, the first ever held at Rockville, were the day’s principal attraction and they attracted a good-sized crowd.
Early action shots like the ones below are rare, however, Lewis Reed was there to capture six epic moments of race history through the lens of his camera that day.
Early race car drivers were required to have a riding mechanic, otherwise it was voluntary. Riding mechanics, who in addition to being lookouts, kept an eye on tire wear and would even hop out of the car and run back through the infield to get fuel. Special note: The above photograph was featured as a part of the London Array Series of “Impossible Engineering,” broadcast on January 24, 2019 on Discovery’s Science Channel. The photograph was used on the program that featured a segment on the development of the race car.
Rockville Garage Displaying New Model Cars at the Rockville Fair Grounds, 1918
Reed Brothers Company Softball Team at the Rockville Fairgrounds, late 1920s
From a distance, it looks and sounds like a regular baseball game: the crack of the bat, the cheering from the bench, the sliding into home plate. But a closer look at the field shows something is very different. They’re playing on a rough grass field, no one is using a batting helmet, fielding glove, or catcher’s mask. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Reed Brothers Dodge had their own company softball team that played on the fields at the Rockville Fairgrounds where Richard Montgomery High School now stands.
Fair Now History
From The Daily Mail (Hagerstown, Maryland) 23 Aug 1933:
The historic Rockville Fairgrounds, scene of many harness race programs, will be sold at a sheriff’s sale Friday afternoon at Rockville. The property consists of 26 acres, a dwelling and numerous stables, exhibition buildings and other structures. The sale is being made to satisfy a claim of a bank. It is rumored that the Montgomery County Board of Education will try to buy the grounds as a site for an elementary school and a future location for the entire Rockville educational plant.
Fair Ground Auctioned
From The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 26 Aug 1933:
The Montgomery County National Bank submitted the only bid for the historic Rockville Fair Grounds at a public auction on August 25, 1933 to satisfy a bank’s claim. Its bid was $19,500.00 subject to a mortgage held by the Sandy Spring Savings Institution, and unpaid interest and taxes.
The Montgomery County Fair was reborn in 1949 and again started holding its annual Fair in Gaithersburg. On June 4th, 1949, hundreds of volunteers participated in an old-fashioned barn raising and 12 outbuildings were constructed in one day. The site of the new Montgomery County Agricultural Center was created.
End of An Era
While many things about the fair have changed over the years, its mission has remained the same.
This event provides the opportunity for 4-H and FFA members to exhibit their livestock, homemaking and craft projects. We also focus on promoting the science and preservation of agriculture in Montgomery County and educating Fair patrons and the community regarding agricultural related topics.
To that end they have been successful since 1846. The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair is now today, one of the largest county Fairs in the State of Maryland.
Find photos like these and much more on Montgomery History’s online exhibit, “Montgomery County 1900-1930: Through the Lens of Lewis Reed“.
Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress
Newspapers.com: the largest online newspaper archive
Rockville, Portrait Of A City, Eileen S. McGuckian
Ag Center History