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.
The Christmas traditions and institutions that evolved over the decades in Wellington County had little to differentiate them from those elsewhere in Ontario.
A rare exception was the Arthur Christmas Poultry Fair, which peaked in importance during the 1920s. From modest beginnings it soon grew to a week-long combination of competitions, a produce market, sales by main street merchants, and a general carnival atmosphere of celebration.
In the fall of 1915, the North Wellington Poultry and Pet Stock Association, led by president H.J. Colwill and secretary E.W. Brocklebank, decided to hold a poultry competition in mid-December. It would be the last agricultural competition of the season, following the Provincial Fair held in Guelph at the beginning of the month.
The Poultry Association consisted of several dozen farmers who raised poultry as a sideline. The group wanted to increase the profitability of poultry raising by improving the stock and employing new and more efficient methods. They scheduled their event for Dec. 13 and 14 of 1915, piggybacking on the presence of many farmers in Arthur on the 14th for the monthly horse show and sale.
The poultry men secured the town hall for their competition, and printed up a prize list and competition rules. They established 33 classes for poultry, with prizes for roosters, hens and poulets in each. As well, there were classes for ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, dressed poultry, eggs and butter.
Augmenting the competition, judged by E.E. Orr of Brantford, there were two lectures on the first day of the show by Henry Dorrance, a noted poultry expert, delivered in the council chambers.
Poultry farmers overwhelmed the association’s directors by placing 450 entries, about double the expected number. The prize money, 50 cents for a first and 25 cents for a second, no doubt attracted some exhibitors. The only disappointment was a small showing of dressed poultry.
The response by visitors delighted the directors. Crowds milled about the hall for the duration of the show. The noise, according to reports, was deafening, with the chatter of visitors competing with the constant quacking of ducks, and rival roosters crowing for dominance in the room.
Buoyed by the success of the 1915 show, the Poultry Association immediately made plans for the second one, on Dec. 14 and 15, 1916. This one attracted more than 600 entries, with the lectures delivered by A.W. Tyson of Guelph.
Spin-offs from the show began in 1916. Druggist A.W. Buschlen was the first to direct his advertising at Poultry Show visitors. A market for poultry began as well. J.K. Goodfellow advertised that he was buying dressed poultry, which he resold both to local butchers and to out-of-town buyers.
Entries at the 1917 Poultry Fair rose slightly to the 650 mark, but the show’s character was changing. The first show attracted entries exclusively from the Arthur area. In 1917 the drawing area grew wider, and many small-time poultrymen withdrew under the fierce competition. Some winners in 1917 were J.R. Hughes, T.B. Farrell, the Conestoga Egg Farm, G.F. Smith, and J.J. Morrison, the Arthur area farmer who was a founder of the United Farmers and the Farmers’ Co-op.
Attendance at the show dropped in 1917, largely due to the vicious federal election campaign that was then nearing its end.
Out-of-town poultry buyers showed up in numbers in 1917, and the following year the poultry show became more oriented to them. Competitive entries dropped to the 500 mark, but came from a wider area. Most farmers now brought their poultry to Arthur to sell, not to show.
The Poultry Association’s modest competition of three years earlier had grown into a four-day festival in 1918.
Leading off was the horse fair on Dec. 17. The next day the poultry market opened, and show officials accepted entries and completed the judging in the competitions. To round out the show they added classes for seed grain.
The show opened to the public on the 19th and 20th. Buyers completed deals with farmers on the last two days, while merchants put on special sales with discounts for cash, which overflowed from farmers’ pockets.
The brisk trade in live and especially dressed poultry astonished everyone. The Poultry Association estimated that farmers sold more than 30,000 pounds of poultry. At that time there were few large-scale poultry operations, and buyers had to scramble to find supplies for the insatiable Toronto market at Christmas. Dressed poultry sold for far higher prices than beef or pork, but there was no easy way for the buyers to find large quantities.
The Arthur poultry fair simplified the job of the buyers, and consequently they offered higher prices to farmers. A couple of the buyers filled iced refrigerator cars at the Arthur station, and made bulk shipments into Toronto.
Arthur’s Board of Trade immediately realized that the village had struck gold. No other town in the area offered a poultry market. Word of the high prices at Arthur got around quickly. In 1919 the Arthur Board of Trade served as the overall organizer of the event, advertised as a four-day Christmas Street Fair.
Council and the Board of Trade cleaned up and decorated the main street. Individual merchants brought in extra stock, and sharpened their pencils to offer Christmas specials. Out of town buyers agreed to be in Arthur for two of the days.
The Poultry Association held its competition on the last two days of the event. As he had in 1918, R.H. Clemens, the agricultural representative, showed films related to agriculture.
About 1,000 people viewed the films, and perhaps 2,000 visited the competition. The poultry market, though, now dominated the festival. The volume sold in 1919 doubled to the 60,000 pound mark.
The 1919 Christmas Fair was only the fifth one, but it had become indisputably the major event in Arthur. And nowhere else in the county was there anything like it.