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A Royal Fair Turns 75

On a cold and wet November day in 1922, a young farmer arrived at the newly constructed Coliseum in downtown Toronto’s Exhibition Park. His name was Alfred Ahiers and he was going to try and win a trophy for his poultry at the first-ever Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. After bracing himself against the blowing snow, Alfred, then 15 years old, unloaded his chickens from the back of a truck and continued to pray for success.

Seventy-five years later, Alfred is still alive and the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is considered by many to be Canada’s best-known agricultural exhibition. Indeed, it has become the world’s largest indoor agricultural, horticultural and equestrian competition. During last year’s fair, more than 350,000 people went to the Coliseum to witness the sights, sounds and smells that have attracted millions of city and country folk over the years.

Alfred, who lives in Toronto’s west end, is proud of the fact that the trophy he won in 1922–for best bantam–still bears his name. “I remember the day before that first fair opened,” he says. “We had absolutely no idea what it would grow into. Back then, we were just buried in snow; trying to get our stock into the Coliseum.”

This year’s exhibition–Nov. 6-15–will celebrate the fair’s 75th anniversary by expanding into a new $180-million trade centre that’s connected to the Coliseum. And for the first time in over a decade, the facilities will accommodate all livestock species and attractions at the same time. The agricultural show will feature the national Limousin, Angus and shorthorn shows. It will also showcase world-class agricultural products. The ever-popular horse show is expected to host the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride and Dr. Reiner Klimke, a world renowned dressage rider. In addition, riding teams from Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Germany are expected to compete for more than $750,000 in prize money.

All of this year’s events will become part of an agricultural fair history that predates Confederation. In fact, much of the character of this country’s small and large agricultural fairs can be traced to exhibitions in other countries, specifically England and Scotland. Canada’s first agricultural fair, which was held in Nova Scotia in 1765, grew out of a desire by farmers to showcase the quality of their annual harvest during fall gatherings.

But besides providing an opportunity to display their best crops and finest animals, fall fairs carried with them–and still do–an important social aspect. For one thing, farm folk could get together to discuss common concerns before the harsh realities of winter set in.

“As the years went by, numerous fairs were held throughout Upper Canada. Many of them were held right in Toronto,” explains historian Mike Filey. “While both the Ontario Winter Fair in Guelph, and the Fat Stock Show in West Toronto did commendable jobs, what was really needed was an annual, dominion-wide, all-Canadian fair held at a central location that would be accessible to both eastern and western exhibitors. It had to be a show that would incorporate virtually all farming interests, including displays of livestock, sheep, swine, poultry, dairying techniques, field crops, horticulture and floriculture. It also had to have a horse show, something that would guarantee the public’s presence.”

The dream to create a large, centrally located fair grew with the help of a selection committee that narrowed the possible locations to two choices: Toronto and Hamilton. The final vote produced a split decision that was only broken when the committee’s chairman, W.A. Dryden, threw his weight behind the Toronto bid.

The fair was scheduled to open in 1921, but by November of that year there was no heat in the newly constructed Coliseum and so–in a country notorious for cold winters–it did not make any sense for organizers to proceed with the opening that year. A postponement allowed time to install heaters and the fair was officially opened the following year with a horse, cow, swine, poultry and fox show. There were also several other exhibits that year. Ironically enough, a huge stove display was one of the many attractions.

November was selected as the best month to hold the fair because it did not coincide with the busiest time of year on the farm. It was also a time that did not conflict with the already-established Chicago and New York agricultural shows.

Once the location was established, the fair’s founders had to get permission from Buckingham Palace to add the word ‘Royal’ to the name of the event. Over the years, that single, significant word has been used as the fair’s main title when people talk about “going to the Royal” or “being at the Royal.”

During the ‘20s and ‘30s the fair grew in size and popularity. Its exhibitors, including Alfred Ahiers, vied for precious floor space and faced more competition every year. The increase in the number of products and services displayed, along with the quality of items displayed, contributed even in those early days to the Royal’s reputation for promoting high standards in Canada’s agricultural industry. For example, competition at the Royal and at other fairs led to improvements in livestock breeds.

However, the fair’s early momentum came to a stop in 1939 with the outbreak of WW II. The Royal was cancelled for six years and during that time locations on the site were used by the Canadian military. Many Legion Magazine readers can probably remember the manning depot and barracks that were situated there during the fair’s silent years.

When the fair reopened in 1946, there was a renewed sense of enthusiasm; attendance figures surpassed expectations, prize money grew as did the number of exhibitors. New exhibit sponsors came forward and many were quick to recognize the value of a national showcase to advertise products and promote the agricultural and food industry. Attendance jumped again the following year and in 1949 the Ontario government, under premier Tom Kennedy, agreed to give the fair a million dollars to enlarge and upgrade its facilities. Both the federal government and the City of Toronto matched the province’s grant, but disagreements over how the buildings would be improved caused a long delay in the construction of a new two-storey sheep and swine building.

As populations shifted from rural settings to urban areas during the ‘50s and ‘60s, many people relied on the Royal to keep them in touch with their agricultural roots. Parents, in particular, began to visit the fair annually to educate their children with the hands-on exhibits. A new milkhouse for handling all milk produced during the fair was added in 1961. That year also saw the construction of a herdsmen’s dormitory as well as major renovations to the fair’s main arena where more comfortable seating was added. It was also around this time that Exhibition Park was renamed Exhibition Place.

Another breakthrough for the fair came in 1965 when it held its first Sunday afternoon horse show. However, it was not until 1968 that the law was relaxed enough to permit the full operation of the fair on Sundays.

The horse shows that were held during the early years of the fair had a military flavor and added a degree of glamor and excitement for the audience. The shows became an important social occasion for the wealthy and they soon attracted equestrian teams from around the world. Since 1922, the Governor General’s Cup has been awarded to the best Canadian-bred, three-year-old mare or gelding.

Today, with less than three per cent of the Canadian population living on farms, the Royal Agricultural Fair gives Canada’s urban society the opportunity to experience agriculture at its best. This benefit is something that is borne out by the 40,000 schoolchildren who visit the fair each year. Many children participate in the various contests and several have served on the Royal’s board of directors where they help set up programs to help young farmers produce better livestock and agricultural products. These same young people have over the years helped urban kids improve their knowledge of rural life and this in turn has given them an appreciation for the importance of agriculture in every-day life. A lot of these kids can now recognize why it is so important for society to think carefully before paving over another stretch of farmland.

“The fair has something for everyone and this year’s edition will be a one-in-a-million kind of event,” says David Garrick, the fair’s chief executive officer. He says the Royal has three main components, namely the horse show, the agricultural showcase and the winter garden show.

The Royal also has a unique international flavor because it attracts more than 6,000 buyers from 67 countries who come to see and buy the best of Canadian livestock, breeding and technology. “For the first time in years beef and dairy will be showcased together in Hall B and C of the new, multi-million dollar National Trade Centre,” says Garrick. “This way, buyers can see everything together during their visit to the fair.”

The National Trade Centre should help organizers accommodate the record 3,000 exhibitors that plan to participate this year. Harrowsmith Hall has 200,000 square feet of arts, crafts, country living displays and cuisine from across Canada. Other attractions include a dog and cat show, a petting zoo, square dance competition and a classic giant pumpkin contest which is part of the popular vegetable show. There will also be a wool exhibit that features the whole nine yards; everything from sheep sheering to the production of yarn.

Mere attendance, however, is not enough to make the Royal the success it is. The fair also relies on its full-time staff–12 this year–and more than 700 volunteers to make things work. “Behind the scenes the work never ends,” says Garrick. “We sit down on the last Friday of each fair with the board of directors and critique the show from start to finish. We decide what must come back and what must be left out. By January, the various committees are planning for the next fair, and exhibit space is being allocated for the new and returning features.”

Sponsorships, proceeds from gate admissions and exhibit space rental fees are the sources of income for the non-profit fair. Crowds are usually smaller on weekdays, but that doesn’t mean the fair is any less exciting during the week. All of the exhibits are open from start to finish and Garrick expects the fair to welcome thousands of exhibitors, competitors and visitors from across Canada, the U.S. and other countries.

Without a doubt, the fair has come a long way since that cold November morning in 1922. For one thing, Canada has been “urbanized” since then. Proof of this is the fact that 58 per cent of the people who have filed through the gates in recent years come from cities. “One thing is for sure,” says Alfred Ahiers, “the Royal is certainly changing and it’s expanding beyond the farm life to represent the more commercial farming we see in Canada these days. Still, I hope the biggest change I find between 1922 and now will be the weather.”

And so, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair celebrates 75 years of sights, sounds and smells. One of the high points this year is expected to occur during opening ceremonies when a descendant of E.A. Haines–the first ticket holder back in 1922–joins the celebration to mark the anniversary. Organizers say the first 750 people will be admitted for 25 cents, the 1922 price of admission. Besides that, a commemorative stamp is being circulated to mark the anniversary. And on Nov. 11, war veterans will be admitted free of charge.

For many, the Royal is a showcase that celebrates everything from perfect soil to high-tech gadgetry to expert horsemanship. But it is also an important gathering place, not unlike the small- town fairs of long ago.

Besides that, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is a pleasant reminder to city folk that they should, indeed, thank a farmer the next time they sit down to eat.


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