The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
Last week’s column described the phenomenal growth of Arthur’s Christmas Poultry Show, from a specialized competition in 1915 to a four-day street fair in 1919. Some 30,000 of dressed chicken sold that year, at record prices of up to 40 cents per pound.
The high prices of 1919 prompted several Arthur area farmers to make a specialty of poultry, and many others to add chickens as a significant sideline. Poultry raising no longer was solely the preserve of the farmer’s wife with a small flock of barnyard fowl.
Anxious to cash in on the market for fresh fowl, some farmers started selling long before the fair, sending crates of live birds to Toronto by rail. Walter Barkwell of Peel Township had no difficulty selling an 800-pound wagon load of dressed chickens in early December.
Arthur’s Board of Trade went all out in 1920. They decorated the main street with flags and bunting, and placed hundreds of evergreen trees along the sidewalks.
As usual, the North Wellington Poultry Association, led by H.J. Colwill and James Farrell, put on its competition in the town hall. It attracted only 300 entries, but the quality was higher than ever, particularly of the popular barred rock and leghorn breeds. The Dominion Experimental Farm in Ottawa provided a special display and demonstration.
The main event was the sale. One Toronto dealer stated that Arthur had become the best Christmas poultry market in the province. Volume in 1920 – 110,000 pounds – almost doubled that of the year before, though prices had declined.
The Board of Trade planned a repeat for 1921. The Poultry Show, on Dec. 12 and 13, again attracted about 300 entries, with respectable crowds.
No one was prepared for the poultry market on the next two days. Reports of the 1920 Christmas Fair had travelled widely.
A huge crowd, automobiles, wagons and livestock, entirely filled the main street. Arthur’s first traffic jam diverted through vehicles onto side streets. The fair attracted not only poultry farmers, but also bargain hunters and sightseers simply attracted by all the publicity. Merchants ended the week with a one-day, cash-only sale on Saturday.
The volume totalled 126,000 pounds, with prices ranging between 28 and 32 cents per pound. In addition, large shipments had already left Arthur at Thanksgiving. The major buyer in 1921 was the Arnold Bros. firm of Toronto. H.R. Fair, their local agent, scooped up almost a third of the offerings.
The Board of Trade expected an even bigger Christmas Fair in 1922, and they were not disappointed. They hired the Arthur Band to play during the day on the decorated main street, and arranged for the banks to be open longer hours. A banquet for the buyers at the Commercial Hotel, with roast chicken as the main course, ended the sale.
The North Wellington Poultry Association, which had begun the whole affair in 1915, did not schedule a poultry competition in 1922, due to declining interest and the work involved. From now on the fair ran as a strictly commercial venture. The 1922 fair set yet another record: 172,000 pounds sold.
For 1923, the Board of Trade planned an even bigger Christmas Fair. But even the seemingly insatiable Toronto market had its limits. Increasing production had pushed prices lower, and the buyers were finding new sources of supply.
Farmers, on the other hand, expected to sell ever more poultry at steady prices. A collision resulted. Buyers arrived in town in a foul mood. The 1923 sale opened with much lower prices offered than in previous years, and the buyers only wanted to look at top quality poultry.
Feeling insulted, many farmers took their poultry home an hour after they arrived in town. Some came back the second day. The top price that year was 21 cents a pound, less for lower quality. The total purchased was about a third of 1922.
Undeterred, the Board of Trade pushed ahead with the 1924 sale.
They persuaded civic groups to operate bazaars and bake sales. Women’s groups from the churches set up stands offering hot lunches.
These steps stabilized the market at volumes and prices similar to 1923, but with a much more pleasant atmosphere.
New marketing trends had an impact on the Christmas Fair in 1925. One was a trend to shipping of live birds. Stork & Sons of Toronto advertised for live birds all year, offering to lend crates to farmers for shipping. The poultry season had become extended.
In 1920, fresh fowl was a luxury item, available only at Christmas, and costing the average working man about two hours’ wages per pound. Accounting for inflation, the price dropped 50% by 1925, and the fresh poultry season ran from late September until Easter.
Arnold Bros. purchased 35,000 pounds of chicken in Arthur at Thanksgiving 1925, and at least 5,000 pounds a week afterwards. As well, the Adams Poultry Co., Harris Abattoir, and Swift Canadian purchased in Arthur through the fall.
These firms were also the big buyers at the poultry fair, which handled some 70,000 pounds of poultry in 1925, at prices ranging up to 32 cents. Some farmers held off their best birds until the fair, when competition among buyers pushed prices upward.
The Board of Trade added a slogan, “Western Ontario’s pioneer competitive dressed poultry market,” to the advertising. The greatest demand was for plump birds weighing seven to eight pounds.
A blizzard on the second day of the 1926 fair deterred sales, but the buyers hung around for an extra day, and some for two. The volume of 80,000 pounds continued the upward trend, but it was still far short of the record set in 1922.
Another change was evident by 1927. Nearly all the poultry was now leaving town by truck. Only a couple of years earlier, the loading of fresh poultry could delay Toronto-bound passenger trains for up to an hour.
The Arthur Poultry Fair remained prosperous into the early 1930s, though it never again achieved the pandemonium of the peak years between 1919 and 1922. Volume in 1930 passed the 100,000 pound mark. For the first time, small buyers from Guelph and Kitchener attended, cutting out the middleman for supplies for their own shops.
The big buyers protested that the newcomers were hijacking the best birds. That year the Board of Trade coupled the Christmas Fair with an aggressive “Buy at Home” campaign.
The volume increased to 110,000 pounds in 1931, then dropped to 90,000 pounds in 1932. As well, prices nosedived, from 28 cents in 1930 to 15 cents in 1932.
The Board of Trade worked hard to sustain the market, holding meetings with both farmers and buyers.
In 1932, they persuaded some Montreal buyers to attend. The shipping of live birds, popular in the late 1920s, largely died out by 1932. This diverted additional birds through the poultry fair.
J.A. McKerracher, who headed the Board of Trade in 1935, attempted to revive the bustling Christmas Fair of the early 1920s, but did not succeed.
Still, the fair carried on. In 1938 a parade, Christmas tree ceremony and a visit by Santa augmented the poultry sale, and attracted out-of-towners to Arthur. This became an annual Board of Trade event.
The Arthur Lions Club jumped aboard in 1942, with a “Grand Fowl Bingo” and 25 roasting chickens as prizes. This event did little to sustain the Christmas Fair, which suffered from a lack of buyers. Local butchers, with easier sources of supply, stopped coming in the 1940s.
The 1943 Fair disappointed everyone. The Board of Trade decided that the event had run its course. This was the last of the Arthur Christmas Fairs.
Despite the demise of the fair, the poultry business in Arthur was never stronger. Anshell & Weinberg, operating as Arthur Packers, began purchasing live and dressed birds year round in 1940. Initially, their plant could handle more than 1,000 birds a day.
An expansion at Arthur Packers in 1942, including a mechanical plucker, more than doubled the volume. This firm shipped more than 200,000 pounds of chicken in the fall of 1942.
Two other operations, Smith & Armstrong and L.H. McCann, also purchased live and dressed birds.
The Arthur Christmas Fair helped establish the Arthur area as a major poultry centre. Changes in the marketing and handling of poultry, particularly mechanical refrigeration, led to its slow death.
While it lasted, the Arthur Christmas Fair was a unique event in Wellington County.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 21, 2001.