Mercer County 4-H Fair retains aspects of bygone agricultural fairs


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The first Mercer County 4-H Fair, held on the grounds of Princeton High School in 1919, featured displays of chickens, pigs, rabbits and vegetables raised by young 4-H club members.

Fast forward to the 100th annual Mercer County 4-H Fair, which was held July 28-29 at Howell Living Farm, Hopewell Township, and club members still showed off their prized rabbits, chickens and vegetables – along with exhibits of their photography, arts and crafts, and needlework projects.

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While the range of 4-H club members’ entries has evolved over the past century, what has not changed is the goal of the annual 4-H fair – to showcase the club members’ projects and to increase boys’ and girls’ interest in joining the 4-H Club program, said Chad Ripberger, the Mercer County 4-H agent.

The abbreviation “4-H” stands for head, heart, hands and health, which represents the core values of independence, belonging, mastery and generosity. The 4-H program symbol is a four-leaf clover.

“(The club members) develop a sense of independence, a sense of belonging and serving the community,” Ripberger said.

The 4-H program is open to children in grades one through 12, and one year past high school. There are animal clubs, art clubs, community service and leadership clubs, and nature clubs.

The Mercer County 4-H Fair is the oldest 4-H fair in New Jersey and grew out of agricultural fairs that were popular in the 19th century, Ripberger said. The fairs aimed to bring the newest farming techniques and practices to farmers, he said.

But back to the Mercer County 4-H fair. Since its inception in 1919, the fair has moved from place to place around the county. It moved to the county-owned Howell Living Farm in 2008.

While the 4-H club members’ exhibits were central to the fair, there were plenty of activities for children to sample during the two-day fair, including a hay ride in a horse-drawn wagon.

In one tent, children could try to milk a goat – a wooden replica, not a real one – and they could shear wool off a (fake) sheep while 4-H club members watched and guided them. Visitors could learn what to feed a rabbit (hint, carrots and lettuce are treats, not the core of a rabbit’s diet).

Young visitors could go for a pony ride, or they could have their face painted. They could even have a green 4-H symbol tattooed on their arm or hand. Temporary, of course.

One of the more popular events was the pie-eating contest, but with a trick. Contestants had to eat a small slice of blueberry pie without holding it. They had to keep their hands behind their back.

“Ready, set, go. This is an important skill. Lick, lick, lick, keep it going, keep it going,” Ripberger said as he encouraged the young contestants, their faces smeared with blueberry pie filling.

Lambertville resident Kori Briggs was one of many visitors to the fair, along with her 18-month-old son, Odin. While most children and their families checked out the 4-H club exhibits, Odin had other ideas.

Odin made it quite clear he wanted to play in a stream that runs through Howell Living Farm. He sat on the bank of the stream, and sometimes in it,  and tossed pebbles into the water.

Well, maybe next year he’ll be a little more interested in the fair.

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