On May 21, 1765, approximately 100 farmers from the District of Windsor in central Nova Scotia, just west of Halifax, trudged along rough and rutted dirt roads to the settlement that had sprung up around the British garrison known as Fort Edward. They left behind fields and farms to participate in the first country fair to be held in North America and they brought with them their best livestock—horses, cattle, oxen, hogs and sheep—not to mention samples of their grain and homemade foodstuffs.
The farmers exhibited their animals and goods, and those judged best in their class took home some dandy prizes—three yards of English blue, superfine broadcloth and a silver medal for the finest cattle; a saddle, bridle and medal for the top horses; a pair of shears and a medal for the sheep; and six yards of ribbon and a medal for the best 12 pounds of butter or cheese. Wrestling matches were held for the amusement of the fairgoers and the champ of the day got a laced hat and a pair of spurs, the runner-up earned a pair of shoes and buckles while the third came away with a pair of buckskin gloves.
The names of the winners have pretty well been lost to history, but those hardy pioneers, most of British descent, helped establish on this continent a cultural event—the annual country fair. Such events had flourished for centuries in the mother country and they have endured in Canada to the present day. Each year, some 950 country or agricultural fairs are held across Canada—approximately 600 of them in Ontario—and according to one estimate they draw an astonishing 23 million visitors. Not only are there lots of them, but many have been around a long time and the economic benefits are great. “They have longevity,” says Hannah Service, executive-director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions. “It’s a heart and soul thing. They’re tied to the things local communities produce, whether it’s blueberries or lobster or potatoes. They’re connected to local identity. I liken them to oak trees. Their roots grow deep and long.”
In recent years, many Ontario country fairs have celebrated 150th anniversaries, and one of them, the Williamstown Fair, held annually in late July, will observe its bicentennial in 2012. Residents of that scenic and historic village, located some 20 kilometres northeast of Cornwall, like to boast that unlike the Windsor fair, which ceased to operate from about 1815 to 1840, they have not missed a year since 1812.
But whether the honour of being Canada’s oldest belongs to Windsor or Williamstown, both are mere toddlers when compared with some of the fairs of England, which served as the template for settlers in the New World, according to Guy Scott, a Kinmount, Ont., teacher and author of three books on the subject, including Country Fairs in Canada.
British monarchs began granting royal charters for fairs as early as the mid-13th century. One of the oldest, the Nottingham Goose Fair (historians are uncertain how it acquired its name) has been held since at least 1284 when it received a charter from King Edward I.
Scott says the fairs of the Middle Ages were primarily held to promote trade and commerce. Roving peddlers from Continental Europe or England’s cities would travel to a village or town on the day designated for the fair, usually on the feast of a saint since most charters were issued to monasteries and convents in order to raise funds. The peddlers set up booths and sold fabrics, household goods and agricultural implements, among other things. The commercial nature of these events faded with the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s when British factories began spewing out mass produced goods in sufficient quantities to stock permanent stores.
Agriculture took the place of commerce at the heart of the rural fair largely due to the influence of King George III, who occupied the throne from 1760 to 1820. The British government wanted to increase food production and began encouraging the formation of local agricultural societies to promote better farming practices. The king wholeheartedly supported these initiatives and served as a sort of patron of agriculture. “His nickname was Farmer George,” says Scott. “He set up model farms and organized agricultural fairs so people could come and see what was new.”
The rise of the English agricultural fair, where local farmers showed their livestock, foodstuffs and other products of the home and competed for prizes, coincided with the British colonization of Canada. But with the exception of a few places like Windsor and Williamstown, it took several decades and some government support before the country fair put down roots and became an annual event in the townships and counties of British North America.
They really began to sprout in the pre-Confederation era, roughly 1840 to 1860, says Terry Crowley, chairman of the department of history at the University of Guelph and an expert in 19th century rural Ontario. The government of the united provinces of Canada, which later became Ontario and Quebec, began subsidizing the creation of local agricultural societies in order to encourage better farming practices. The mandate of these societies included holding an annual fair, which was seen as a way of bringing farmers together to showcase their best animals and produce and to share information about what worked and what didn’t. “The 1850s and 1860s was the golden age of agricultural societies and their fairs,” adds Scott. “The first objective was to educate the farm population.”
A second was to entertain the people. Country fairs in both England and Canada have generally included entertainment of one form or another. By the 1790s, the merry-go-round, driven by horses or hand-powered cranks, had made its appearance at fairs in England, says Scott. Four decades later, in the 1830s, the precursor of the contemporary midway had taken shape, complete with attractions such as rides, games of chance, live theatre, magicians and illusionists. They also generally included one thing not present today—the sideshow where people with various physical deformities and afflictions were displayed.
The fairs held in hundreds of communities across this country each year from late spring to late fall are direct descendants of the country fair that developed in England in the latter half of the 18th century. There have been changes though, some subtle, some less so. The midways are brighter, noisier, flashier and, some would say, more garish. And all those competitions, where farmers display livestock and produce, jams, jellies and various household crafts, no longer serve to educate the rural populace about best practices. “Before my time,” says Harry Emmett, 58, a cash crop farmer from Paris, Ont., and president this year of the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OASS), “the fair was the place to see modern updates and the latest trends. With today’s computers and media, it’s one of the last places you’d look.”
Instead, the country fair has become a venue for educating urban Canadians about life on the farm. The Paris Fair, held on Labour Day weekend and celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, attracts 80,000 visitors over its three-day run and that makes it the sixth largest in the province. It draws people from the nearby cities of Brantford, Cambridge, Kitchener-Waterloo and London.
“Most of them don’t see agricultural livestock like they used to when their parents came from a farm or their grandparents were farmers,” says Emmett. “They are a generation or two past that. They don’t get to visit farms. That’s part of the appeal. Agricultural fairs in southern Ontario have a big educational component and it seems to be getting bigger every year.”
Commodity organizations—representing beef producers, dairy farmers and poultry farms among others—as well as the agricultural societies themselves usually have a building where they demonstrate various farm practices such as milking cows with modern machinery, shearing sheep, managing beehives and shoeing horses. Beverly Runions, secretary-treasurer of the Williamstown Fair, says her community’s three-day event also features individuals who have learned traditional skills such as spinning wool and making butter.
The influx of urbanites boosts ticket sales and agricultural society revenues, but also takes a toll on the volunteers who run the fairs. “You have to have qualified people on the grounds all the time to watch what’s going on,” says Percy McNabb, 68, a past-president of the OAAS and a cattle farmer in Cochrane, Ont., situated 800 kilometres north of Toronto. Ninety-five per cent of these people don’t have a clue what an animal can do. I’ve seen teenagers trying to feed livestock and you don’t know whether it’s candy or something else. I’ve seen parents put their kids on top of a calf and walk away to take a picture. What if it moves and the kid falls off? We get blamed.”
The board of the Paris Fair cancelled harness racing in 2007, which had been a feature attraction for as long as Emmett can remember. “It got to be too big a liability problem,” he says. “The urban people want to cross the track whenever they feel like it. It was too hard to control the crowd.”
In their essentials—the farm competitions and the midways—fairs tend to look alike whether they’re happening in Atlantic Canada, central Canada or the West. But in every part of the country there are events or attractions that are peculiar to that region. The Hants County Exhibition, held in Windsor, N.S., each September and descended from that one-day gathering of farmers in the District of Windsor back in May 1765, stages an ox-pulling competition in which pairs of oxen yoked together drag heavy objects. David Coombes, secretary of the exhibition, says the event reflects the early history of the area when such big beasts of burden were used to haul lumber and to clear land for farming. The fair also features a tug-of-war tournament, a Nova Scotia specialty, says Coombes, and draws the best 10-member teams, both men and women, from across the province.
The Comox Valley Exhibition, held on the third weekend of August since 1875 in Courtenay (pop. 22,500) on Vancouver Island, is one of the few fairs to feature a strongman competition. It is open to men and women, heavyweights, lightweights and featherweights and includes several tests, one of which is to lift either the front or back end of a Dodge PT Cruiser parked on a skid.
The fair is also used to promote one of the latest environmental trends—the 100-mile diet in which people consume foods locally grown or produced in order to reduce the fuel consumed in transporting goods longer distances. Leah Hryko, president of the exhibition, says the Comox Valley is a rich agricultural area and its farmers produce pork, lamb, dairy products and a range of vegetables, including wasabi, the fiery Japanese radishes that are mashed into a paste and eaten with sushi. “We showcase it all,” says Hryko. “There’s a real push on in the West Coast to do the 100-mile diet. It’s really easy for us because we produce so much. People buy California produce and don’t realize we grow it here on the island because it hasn’t been publicized.”
In Alberta and to a lesser extent in Saskatchewan, rodeos are often a central part of agricultural fairs and in some case take the place of traditional livestock competitions in other parts of the country. This, of course, reflects the role cowboys and the cattle industry played in the formation of the two western provinces. The Alberta Agricultural Societies Association sanctions local societies, provided that once a year they hold a fair, a conference or some other type of event related to agriculture promotion.
The Lamont and District Agricultural Society, which serves a farming community northeast of Edmonton, holds two such events yearly. In late April, it stages the Lamont Bull-a-Rama Supreme, a one-night bull-riding competition in the town’s arena. For the past 19 years, it has also organized the Lamont Summer Sizzler Rodeo and
Fair, which features many of the standard fair events, including a parade, horticultural displays, arts and crafts exhibits and a midway, along with steer wrestling, saddle bronco riding, ladies barrel racing and other rodeo competitions. “Everybody in our area farms,” says Aaron Wick, vice-president of the agricultural society. “The Bull-a-Rama is an event that includes a dance and whoop-up and the rodeo is held in mid-summer and is the community’s big pre-harvest get-together.”
Despite their enduring popularity, some fairs, especially those in smaller communities, are faced with some substantial hurdles as they look to the future. According to McNabb, farmers are paying higher insurance premiums on the animals they transport to livestock competitions. As well, the fairs themselves run greater risks of being held liable for accidents or injuries, especially with so many urban dwellers attending.
The two biggest challenges are rural de-population and the ageing of the population. Farmers have been leaving the land for decades and farm units are becoming larger and larger. That means there are fewer individuals to enter livestock and produce competitions that were the very foundations of these events in the first place.
Equally important, fewer farmers and an ageing rural population means a dwindling pool of people to organize and run the fairs and all of them rely on dedicated volunteers. Nobody knows that better than those responsible for one of the country’s oldest fairs. “We haven’t missed a fair since 1812, and we couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” explains Runions. “We have a 30-member board of directors and some of them have served for 20 or 30 years. We have hundreds of volunteers. They step up to the plate and the weekend comes off.”