Fergus wrestled 25th International Plowing Match from Guelph

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 2000 International Plowing Match (IPM) will not be the first to be held in Wellington County.

Those near Guelph in 1968 and at Teviotdale in 1984 should be remembered by a good portion of the readers of this paper. The first, though, is in the memory of only a solid core of oldtimers. It was held on the northwest edge of Fergus in 1937.

The 1937 Fergus match was the first IPM in Wellington, and the 25th IPM. The organizers were most anxious to leave visitors with a good impression of Wellington County. As well, they were conscious of the significance of the 25th anniversary, and the role the IPM had come to play as a major annual event for rural Ontario.

In recent years IPM committees prepare for the event for over three years. In comparison, the Fergus organizers did a rush job. Their organizing meeting was not held until February 1937, less than eight months before the event.

Fergus was not the first choice for a location. The first preference had been a site closer to Guelph, but the city council hesitated with providing the assistance they had originally promised.

After the Fergus committee had done much of the preliminary work, a group from Guelph showed up at a meeting with commitments of a large amount of money from the city and from Guelph merchants. They argued that a town the size of Fergus could not possibly accommodate the plowing match.

They were too late.

Some found the effort insulting, others merely thought it pathetic.

Beatty Brothers had come forward with a wide range of assistance, including money, land, facilities and staff time. The Beatty firm was always happy to help out civic projects, and they were particularly delighted with the IPM, since it offered promotional opportunities for the firm’s products.

J.B. Ketchen served as chairman of the committee, and S.B. Stothers as secretary. There were a number of sub-committees and organizers for particular portions of the event, which was scheduled for four days, Oct.  12 to 15. Altogether, about 40 people served in a major way. By August, the group was holding weekly meetings.

With the spectre of the Depression still hovering, there was a fear that finding money for prizes would be difficult. This was not the case: the committee raised almost double what they expected. Prizes ranged as high as $40, quite a sum in 1937.

Accommodation was a problem. There was no hotel in Fergus in 1937. Billets had to be found for 35 judges, and then for many of the competitors and exhibitors at the tented city. Between four and five hundred people found beds in Fergus and area.

In planning for billeting, parking, and crowd control, the committee relied on the experience they had gained four years earlier, with the Fergus Centennial.

The Ennotville Women’s Institute came forward with an offer to provide box lunches for those in the fields at 20 cents each.

Another logistic problem was horses. Some plowmen brought horses, which had to be boarded at co-operating farms near the match site. Other plowmen, from a distance, used teams borrowed from Fergus area farmers.

Neil McKinnon, who was in charge of the horse accommodation, piled more on his plate when he decided to stage a large horse show on the last day of the match.

There was also land to get lined up. The organizers were particular about soil type and drainage, and eventually had fields more than two miles away from the main site.

The full committee surveyed the site on Sept. 9, only four weeks before the opening, to lay out the tented city and designate the appropriate sites for parking.

The tented city was located at the corner of Garafraxa Street and the Beatty line. This was only a couple of minutes walk from the railway stations, but based on the experience of IPMs elsewhere, the committee expected most visitors to arrive by motor car, with four or five people in each car.

Commitments for demonstrations and exhibit booths continued to dribble in, and the tented city turned out to be much larger than expected.

The IPM had just added tractor classes to the competition. Tractor distributors saw this as a good promotional opportunity.

International Harvester, Allis-Chalmers, Massey- Harris and Ford all supplied tractors for use in competitions, and they also had models on display to drum up sales.

The tented city included a wide range of household appliances, domestic goods, food stands, and electrical equipment. The latter is rather surprising, because so many Ontario farms did not yet have electricity – some not very far from the IPM site.

When the match opened there were 800 sites in the tented city.

The organizers recognized that the IPM was growing beyond a mere competition for plowmen. It was combining elements of an agricultural trade show and a home show, with attractions to appeal to most members of the family, and attractions of interest to urban people as well as farmers.

There were many loose ends to tie up. J.M. Milligan scouted for the best rates on insurance. J.H. Armstrong had his hands full with last minute changes on the layout, setting up washrooms, and borrowing snow fencing. Then there was a program to put together: 28 pages, printed in two colours.

The committee reviewed their plans with the OPP for routine patrols, parking and traffic flow. Because the IPM site stretched north along Highway 6, the OPP decided to divert through traffic from Marden through Elora to Alma during the match. The committee hired 25 men to direct traffic on nearby streets in the parking lots.

In spite of the rushed planning, the Fergus IPM came off outstandingly well. The only blemish was the weather: it was cold and windy every day, with snow on the second day, and intermittent rain at other times.

Records were set for attendance (115,000 in total), largest single day attendance (45,000), largest ever display of farm machinery, and largest number of competitors (590).

The record attendance on the second day strained food and washroom facilities, but the 9,000 cars at the site proceeded home in an orderly manner, with no major tie ups.

A number of school groups attended in buses, and a group of teachers at a teachers convention attended for a half day. The organizers took particular delight in the reaction of the American Agricultural Engineers, who attended following their 1937 convention in Toronto. Several stated they had never seen an event like this, and would urge their home states to organize similar events.

The Fergus IPM was the first at which tractors played a major role. In reporting on the match the Canadian Countryman noted that rubber tires on tractors were a major advance because they provided superior traction. A plowing demonstration with a couple of teams of oxen drew many spectators.

Many farmers, though, shunned tractors, claiming that work horses were cheaper and better for farm work. For these, the IPM scheduled demonstrations in the best way to hitch three or four horses to an implement.

The most popular story out of the match concerned Maisie Nicklin, the first woman to compete. Some scoffed when she appeared in the field, but the reactions soon turned to respect and admiration, as Nicklin won fourth prize in the tractor class. She even beat her own father in one class.

Art Badley of Elora organized a huge banquet on the final night at the old Fergus arena. More than 1,000 sat down to eat and hear speeches from the Ontario Agriculture Minister and other dignitaries. Beatty Bros. supplied a temporary heating system to take the chill out of the air.

The Fergus IPM ended on a Friday, and the site was taken down over the weekend. The organizers, and the town as a whole, felt a mixture of relief and pride after it was all over. They had accomplished what many thought could not be done, and they had set new standards for others to follow.

Editor Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record had been a strong supporter of the IPM but was somewhat perplexed by it all. In his editorial the next week he thought it peculiar that a farmer would recruit four or five of his neighbours to accompany him on a drive of 100 miles or more to stand in a cold field to watch a stranger plow. (The similar comment could be made of a fisherman acquaintance of mine, who gets up at 5am to stand in ice cold water up to his knees attempting to catch fish that he throws back.)

On reflection, the wise editor must have realized that the Fergus IPM offered a friendly competition between farmers, as well as a chance to socialize and see the latest in farm equipment.

In the broader perspective, it was a celebration of our agriculture heritage. The same will be said of the Year 2000 match.

 *This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 29, 1999.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015