The monthly Heritage Partner Spotlight focuses on our Heart of Chesapeake Country Heritage Area (HCCHA) partners and how they have supported heritage tourism in Dorchester County with a project funded by either a Maryland Heritage Areas Authority (MHAA) grant or a HCCHA mini-grant.
This month’s spotlight shines on the National Outdoor Foundation, best known for Dorchester County’s annual National Outdoor Show with its pageants, cooking and craft demonstrations and muskrat skinning competition. The National Outdoor Foundation promotes conservation, education and preservation of the outdoor-centered culture of Dorchester County.
Celebrating the 75th National Outdoor Show
With its focus on traditional outdoor skills and heritage, the National Outdoor Foundation is celebrating its 75th show this year, but its foundation goes back even further – to the 1930s, when muskrat was considered “the farmers greatest winter crop.”
Today, muskrat skinning competitions are still an integral part of the annual show’s program, but the event also features pageants, cooking demonstrations and competitions, crafts, log sawing and peeling tournaments, photo contests, oyster shucking and more. The Dorchester County show draws 1,200-1,500 attendees over its two-day period.
Since 1984, the National Outdoor Foundation has donated more than $82,000 toward scholarships. The foundation also has donated an additional $120,000 has been contributed directly to Dorchester County schools, volunteer fire departments, sporting groups, local events and other nonprofit organizations.
The National Outdoor show owes its beginnings to the muskrat, which has long been a staple in Dorchester County. According to Blackwater Quarterly Narrative Reports, the meat was prized by locals and sold commercially under the name of “marsh rabbit,” and the fur was highly sought as it resembled the hide of the Hudson seal. The season then, as now, begins Jan. 1 and ends March 15.
In 1938 and 1939, a group of local residents organized informal winter picnics where competitive muskrat skinning was featured. Participation grew exponentially every year, and a formal competition was held in 1940 with 25 men and women from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia vying in the first Men’s and Woman’s National Muskrat Skinning Championship.
By 1941, the event had morphed into the “Cambridge Life Outdoor Show” and Second National Muskrat Skinning Competition,” according to Blackwater Quarterly Narrative Reports. More than 1,500 attendees watched 14 contestants from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware vie for champion titles at the local Armory. A “juvenile” muskrat skinning contest awarded 50 cents to each child winner. Log sawing and oyster shucking contests were also on the schedule. Exhibits included a glass swimming tank which with live muskrats and an “Australian axeman” who repeatedly tossed and caught a boomerang through the crowd, according to The Daily Banner.
WWII curtailed official activities of the show 1942 thru 1946, although a competition of sorts continued. In 1947, the show resumed and has been an annual event without interruption.
From Dorchester to Louisiana
During the 1950s, Fur Fashion Shows were held to promote the fur industry. A Fur Queen would be chosen, and this brave damsel would model a fur bathing suit along the banks of the frozen Choptank River. In 1954, the Fur Queen contest was replaced by the Miss Outdoors Pageant.
Answering a challenge from Maryland Sen. Fred Malkus, Louisiana’s congressman, sent a 25-year-old trapper from Cameron Parish to the National Outdoor Show to compete in the 1955 skinning contest. The Louisiana trapper placed fifth, but the dare had lasting effects. By the end of that year, Louisiana had initiated its own version of the Outdoor Show: The Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival. It is now deemed the “Oldest and Coldest Festival” in Louisiana and is an official “sister festival” to Dorchester’s Outdoor Show. Each year, skinners, festival queens and representatives of the Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival and National Outdoor Show travel to each other’s states for friendly competition and faithful fellowship.
Something for Everyone
Additional events were added throughout the years, including Little Miss and Mister Outdoors Pageants, duck, goose and turkey calling contests, chainsaw carving, cooking and corn shucking. In addition to wildlife exhibits, past programs included roller skating acts, a live four-pound Dungeness crab, the Choptank Indian Ballet, Love Birds, a pet show with more than 100 dogs, magic and circus acts and a uranium exhibit.
Sponsorship of the Outdoor Show passed from The Farm Bureau to the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and then to the Cambridge Jaycees. In 1984, the South Dorchester Jaycee Women assumed sponsorship and moved the show to its current location at South Dorchester K-8 School in Golden Hill. It was judged Best Community Oriented Project of the State and National Jaycee Women’s Organizations.
The National Outdoor Show is run completely by more than 100 volunteers, with four board members and 30 chair persons
Funding from the Heart of Chesapeake Heritage Area has helped the National Outdoor Show promote their annual event, which showcases unique talents of Dorchester County residents. Mini-grant funding has included:
2016 – $2,000. Used toward advertising
2017 – $1,000. Advertising event
2018 – $2,000. Marty Long – Chainsaw Carver
2019 – $2,500. Marty Long – Chainsaw Carver
2020 – $1,967. Commemorative Oyster Tin and Cookbook
75th National Outdoor Show
Feb. 28-29, 2020
3485 Golden Hill Road
Church Creek, MD
in the past 35 years
- 1986 – South Dorchester Jaycee Women reorganized as the National Outdoor Foundation, Inc.
- 1992 – Educational scholarship prizes added to the Miss Outdoors Pageant.
- 1993 – Muskrat Cooking Contest added to show.
- 2000 – First Children’s Races: Muskrat, Oyster and Fish.
- 2004 – Celebrated 50th Miss Outdoors Pageant.
- 2004 – “Muskrat Lovely,” Amy Nicholson’s film documentary highlighting the National Outdoor Show is released.
- 2007 – The Outdoor Show was honored to be the first recipient of “Maryland Traditions Alta Award” for achievement in living traditions and art.
- 2008 – Show covered by Abigail Tucker of the Smithsonian and featured in a Washington Post front page article by David A. Fahrenthold.
- 2015 – Upgraded Federal Tax Code status from 501(c)4 to 501(c)3 to better reflect the nonprofit emphasis on conservation, education and preservation of Dorchester County’s outdoor centered culture. All donations are tax deductible as provided by law.
- 2017 – Significantly increased scholarships, for the first time since 1992, for pageant winners. Added a pre-show pageant, Miss Nature Girl, for men.