Crowning a queen
The glitz and glamour of one of the county’s honored and established traditions, the Charles County Fair, lies with the anticipation and crowning of the fair queen ever y year.
The first county fair was held in 1924 at Chapel Point in Port Tobacco as a way for farmers to celebrate their crop harvest. Tobacco reigned supreme in Southern Maryland at the time, and had for hundreds of years.
In an attempt to add entertainment to the fair and recognize the backbone of the county’s economy, the Queen Nicotina pageant was launched in 1933 and has been held all but three years since.
In 1936 there was no festival due to the decreased tobacco price and a poor harvest. In 1943, there was no queen due to World War II. In 1958, a Tercentenary Queen was crowned in place of Queen Nicotina in honor of the county’s 300th anniversary.
The pageant queens have been referred to as several titles throughout the years, including Tobacco Queen, Queen of the Fair, the most popular lady in Charles County, and Queen and the Court of the Magic Weed. The name has been questioned in recent years with concerns that it promotes unhealthy tobacco use, but more have since declared the name to be a tradition and connection to the past.
“It’s history, that’s all it is, it’s our history and heritage,” Louise Stine, a member on the board of directors, said of the name. “It has been discussed many times. It came up again this year and so we discussed it and the general consensus is that when you talk to other people, it’s our heritage and our history and you can’t change histor y.”
Stine said a poll was conducted in recent years to get feedback from the community about whether the name should change from its reference to the tobacco plant or not.
“There was a general consensus of the public that year that it was part of our history and heritage. We’re not encouraging smoking at all, that’s not what we’re promoting,” Stine said.
Over the years, participation in the contest has changed. The year 1981 saw the largest number of queen hopefuls with 28 applicants that year. This year and over the past few recent years, Stine said the number has remained around 10 applicants meaning everyone makes it onto the court, which used to consist of 13 young ladies.
Stine said she worries that, because the application is due the week after most students go back to school, the timing is too hectic and not as many of the county’s young girls know about the pageant from being involved in various county organizations such as Girl Scouts, 4-H and church youth groups.
Stine herself was crowned queen in 1961 when she was 17 years old. At that time, the queen was determined by an applause meter driven from the audience. Whichever contestant received the loudest applause won.
“Oh, everyone wanted to be queen,” Stine said. “And we didn’t event have a scholarship but it was such an honor.”
The first queen was Ethel Martin Bowling, formerly of La Plata, who was crowned the first year of the contest in 1933. Fifty years later, her granddaughter, Sharon Elizabeth Wood, then 17, was crowned the 50th Queen Nicotina unbeknownst to the impartial judges.
“She was happy to have carried on that tradition from my mother and that meant a lot to her,” Pat Wood, Ethel’s daughter and Sharon’s mother, said of her daughter’s crowning.
Tragically, Sharon died of colon cancer two years ago. Ethel died in 1993 at the age of 79.
“Mom said she never dreamed she would have a grandchild that would share that excitement with her,” Wood said, recalling her mother’s glee when Sharon won the title. “I still have [my mother’s] dress and crown. She wore a red velvet gown. Everybody said she
looked so pretty because she had black hair and with the red velvet they said she looked very regal.”
Wood said she remembered her daughter’s excitement, and disbelief, when she was named the 50th Queen Nicotina.
“She was beside herself she was so excited,” Wood said of Sharon. “She said, ‘Mom, I can’t believe I won.’”
When Bowling was crowned queen, nomination ballots were sent throughout the county and she was chosen by popular vote. By the time her granddaughter was up for the title, the process became what it is today: consisting of a panel of impartial judges from another county who select the queen based on her scholastic achievements, poise, extra-curricular activities, appearance, presentation and a personal interview.
Wood also had her time to shine in the contest. She said she also received the popular vote during a Chapel Point dance that, for years, was traditionally held in anticipation of the fair. However, at 16, she was one year too young to have been nominated. When she came of age the following year, she had graduated high school and began working in Washington, D.C.
Looking back on the experience, she says the current process of choosing
Ten young women will vie for the 81st Queen Nicotina crown, and $1,000 scholarship, tomorrow evening. The contestants are Madison Stanley, back left, Maria Miller, Amanda Clements, Tina Robertson, Taylor Covington, front left, Rachel Nueslein, Callie Maginnis, Jensen Conklin, Abigail Tarburton, and Rebecca Giannini.
Pat Wood holds a photo of her daughter, Sharon Wood, when she was crowned Queen Nicotina in 1985, 50 years after her grandmother, Ethel Bowling, was crowned the first queen in 1933. Sharon died two years ago from colon cancer and Bowling died in 1993 at the age of 79.
Louise Stine prepares the 81st Queen Nicotina contestants before their personal interviews Friday before the opening of the Charles County Fair. This year’s queen will be crowned tomorrow evening during the coronation ceremony at the fairgrounds.
Ethel Martin Bowling, crowned the first Queen Nicotina in 1933, stands with her granddaughter, then 17-year-old Sharon Elizabeth Wood, who was crowned the 50th Queen Nicotina in 1985.