Former state Del. Gerry Brewster, who is indelibly tied to the Maryland State Fair, is stepping down as its chairman in November — concluding a decades-long family legacy.

Since taking the helm of the nonprofit that runs the fair in 2017, the north Baltimore County native has overseen renovation of fairgrounds facilities, including the Timonium racetrack grandstands and a brand-new Farm and Garden Building to start construction this fall.

Under a new commitment for fairgrounds operations to become carbon neutral, Brewster oversaw installation of 7,000 solar panels on the Cow Palace roof.

During his chairmanship, the Maryland State Fair & Agricultural Society received national recognition for its COVID-19 testing and vaccine site — a feat Brewster says is his proudest achievement.

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And, after years of the nonprofit that runs the state fair “living paycheck to paycheck,” Brewster said, he organized volunteers in fundraising campaigns and advocated in the State House to raise more than $10 million. Brewster said he was driven to accomplish that goal to ensure Maryland’s annual premier carnival and agriculture festival is sustained for decades to come.

For many, the Maryland State Fair means days of cheap summer fun — more than a half-million people turn out each year to pig out on buttery popcorn, share laughter on whirling rides and lug hard-won, inordinate stuffed animals home for their children, according to figures provided by the Maryland State Fair & Agricultural Society, the volunteer group that organizes the fair.

“When a family comes through that gate,” fairgrounds manager Andy Cashman said, they come to “laugh and enjoy themselves, without spending a ton of money; fairs are made to do that.”

A family, center, rides a swinging and spinning ride. Other groups' feet are in every corner of the frame.
People ride Hydra, a swinging and spinning ride, at the state fair in Timonium. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Like many fairgoers, Brewster has roots in the Maryland State Fair that run deep. He fondly remembers being 5 years old, circling the ring with his Shetland pony, Harvey, under the watchful eyes of his mother and equine competition judges.

“I won a ribbon, and I thought it was the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Brewster, 66, said.

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Decades later, the former steeplechase jockey found himself serving on the same board that his father, the late former U.S. senator, congressman and state Del. Daniel B. Brewster, oversaw in 1958 when he was elected president of the Maryland State Fair & Agricultural Society.

“I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to continue my father’s legacy of stewardship of the state fair,” Brewster said during an interview inside the racing grandstands — pausing between a reporter’s questions to field phone calls, coordinate golf-cart tours for Gov. Wes Moore and his staffers, and oversee the annual governor’s luncheon.

Cashman, a lifelong Marylander who’s worked with Brewster for nearly a decade, said the outgoing chairman “has a true love for the fair.”

“He grew up here as a young boy, showing his pony,” said Cashman, recalling Brewster was “not afraid to get his hands dirty” by helping to repaint and refurbish fairgrounds facilities. In Brewster’s role as chairman, his background “makes all the difference in the world.”

In addition to the rides and food, the state fair means carrying on family traditions by vying for top prizes in dozens of competitions, ranging from quilt making and potting plants to beer brewing.

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But, throughout its 143-year-run, Maryland’s top fair has revolved around the state’s largest commercial industry by promoting horticulturists, livestock farmers, horse trainers, cattle ranchers and gardeners (especially students).

“It’s a labor of love, and it’s a community,” said Donna Myers, a former dairy cow farmer and state fair president.

Myers’ children and grandchildren have continued to compete in state livestock shows. In the past two weeks of the fair, she said, her grandkids have exhibited around 20 beef and dairy cattle, sheep and market goats.

“To have three generations on the fairgrounds working together — for our family, it’s very meaningful,” she said.

A shepherd sheers Latifah, a 6 month old white sheep. A black sheep kept behind a fence peers into the camera on the right side of the frame.
A shepherd prepares Latifah, a 6-month-old sheep, for show the next day at the Maryland State Fair. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Brewster and Myers, who were both elected in 2017, say preserving that heritage and growing Maryland’s agricultural industry through promotion and education are the core of the nonprofit’s mission. That’s why, Brewster said, the fair remained open in 2020 at the outset of the pandemic, for limited youth livestock shows, with auctions held virtually.

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“The kids work all year long in hopes that they’ll do well in the county fair, to compete in the state fair,” Brewster said. “We did not want to let them down.”

In his six years as chair, Brewster “has turned this fair around” and “invigorated it with new life,” said Fran Burns, a farmer who sits on the fair’s board of directors.

A horse trainer who served in the State House in the early 1990s, Brewster was uniquely qualified for chairmanship.

Under his leadership, the nonprofit significantly expanded the fairgrounds’ year-round events. The Maryland State Fair drew more than 600,000 attendees last year, and its year-round entertainment and educational programs bring more than 2 million visitors annually, according to the nonprofit.

Brewster also partnered with Baltimore County and Maryland to set up the COVID-19 testing and vaccination site.

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Among the accolades was an award for the Maryland State Fair’s work with Latin and Hispanic community groups such as Amigos of Baltimore County to distribute free meals to thousands of Marylanders.

“He has the spirit of exactly what I want for my Timonium,” said Kathleen Beadell, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council and member of the state fair board of directors.

Gerry Brewster smiles while chatting with guests before the luncheon begins.
Gerry Brewster, chairman of the Maryland State Fair board who will be stepping down this year, chats with guests Friday. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said Brewster’s public service goes beyond his leadership of the Maryland State Fair.

“His desire to be a problem-solver and help others was evident” during the initial years of the coronavirus pandemic, said Olszewski, who door-knocked for Brewster’s 1994 congressional campaign.

“Additionally, just working with him in his advocacy for agriculture and land preservation — these were all critical issues in Baltimore County and he’s been at the forefront,” Olszewski added. “I’m honored to know him, and I’m honored to call him a friend.”

Brewster said he’s leaving the Maryland State Fair knowing it’s “in a very good place.”

“I’m really proud of the accomplishments that the staff, the board and the management have been able to implement during my tenure here,” he said. “But there comes a time when an organization benefits from a new set of eyes and a new vision for the future.”

Gov. Wes Moore presented Brewster with a governor’s citation for his 38 years of service volunteering on the Maryland State Fair & Agricultural Society board of directors Friday afternoon.

“One of the reasons I absolutely love the state fair is because it’s ours — everyone’s,” said Moore, addressing Maryland farmers, state fair volunteers and government officials.

That doesn’t happen by accident, Moore added.

”It happens because we have a leadership that’s intentional.”

taylor.deville@thebaltimorebanner.com