Looking back: Fergus hosted a big Victoria Day celebration in 1911

Today Victoria Day to most people means a Monday holiday and a display of fireworks.

A century ago Victoria was the big holiday on the summer calendar, eclipsing July 1.

Canada, in the first years of the 20th century, was outspokenly royalist, and though she had died in 1901, Queen Victoria still loomed large in the imagination, and the celebration of her birthday retained its importance.

By then the Royal Family and Canadian patriotism had become closely intertwined.

Victoria Day celebrations became common during the 1860s. Originally they were mounted on a purely local basis.

With the construction of railways in the 1870s and 1880s, and the eagerness of the railways to run special trains, a friendly rivalry developed between towns, each taking a turn at putting on a big celebration intended to outdo the previous efforts of neighbouring towns. Special trains boosted attendance and provided a rare opportunity for people to escape their daily routines.

In 1911 a committee in Fergus began early in the year to plan a May 24 celebration for the town.

Where the initiative came from is a mystery; the committee chose not to attract a lot of attention to itself, and worked out of the public eye. R.T.S. Coltart served as chairman of the committee and J.R. McLaughlin as secretary, but their names did not appear prominently until the advertising of the event was published.

The Fergus program would centre on a visit by the 91st Canadian Highlanders of Hamilton. The regiment, with its soldiers and three bands, would come to Fergus by special train.

The cost of bringing the Hamilton soldiers to Fergus added up to about $1,200, a fortune in the hard money of pre-World War I Canada. There were, of course, other expenses in addition. The committee would need to sell a lot of 25-cent admission tickets to break even.

Neighbouring towns predicted disaster for the Fergus committee. More than 6,000 admissions would be needed to break even.

That was quite a challenge for a town of less than 2,000. Even with perfect planning, bad weather could wreck the day.

The railways, though, were impressed, and agreed to lay on special trains to Fergus for May 24, which would fall on a Wednesday that year, perfect for a one-day outing. The Grand Trunk would put on trains beginning their runs at Palmerston and Galt. Canadian Pacific agreed to run a special from Orangeville. All offered fares at about a third of regular fares. The railways would make their money by filling the cars to standing room only.

The committee appealed to residents to clean up their properties and put up bunting and decorative evergreen boughs. Many residents co-operated, as did virtually all the St. Andrew Street merchants, who intended to keep their stores open for the day.

The Fergus committee set a significant budget for advertising, hiring bill posters to put up announcements in most of the towns and villages in the county. As well, they spent money on advertisements in local newspapers, not only in Fergus and Elora, but also in papers as far away as Mount Forest and Harriston.

News of the Fergus claim on May 24 that year caused other towns to hold off on their celebrations. Only two other towns mounted activities. In Arthur village, which had circuitous rail connections with Fergus, the Oddfellows lodge put on an afternoon of games and races, followed by a performance by the Sherlock Concert Company in the evening. And at Hollen there was an evening concert at the Methodist Church, featuring some out-of-town entertainers. Though the church had a small capacity, the church advertised the concert widely through posters.

The weather co-operated on May 24 as the nervous organizers welcomed the special trains at the Fergus stations. All were a little late, but no visitors were looking too closely at their pocket watches.

More serious was the non-appearance of the special from Hamilton carrying the 91st Regiment. It was scheduled to arrive a little after 10am, but did not pull in until a few minutes before noon. Some of the spectators who had arrived earlier lingered around the station, but most decided to wander around the town.

The Hamilton special was a long train, pulled by two locomotives, with 10 coaches overflowing with uniformed soldiers plus some of their friends from the 30th Regiment who had boarded at Guelph. Another five cars transported horses and various pieces of equipment.

The men quickly piled off the train and formed up in formation under Col. John Bruce. Posters had promised 500 men from the 91st, but the actual number totalled only 462. Still, they presented an impressive appearance as Reeve A.C. Steele offered a brief address of welcome. He emphasized the Scottish heritage of both Fergus and the regiment.

Then it was off for a parade, led by the Fergus committee and the officers in motor cars, east to St. David Street and then west up St. Andrew. Cheering crowds lined the streets. The march ended at the town hall, now demolished, beside Melville Church, where the soldiers enjoyed an ample lunch. Belching and wiping crumbs from their lips, they formed up again for a march to Victoria Park.

Several thousand spectators enjoyed a display of marching in formation, the trooping of the colours, and various physical drills. Those military manoeuvres were very popular with the crowd, and were greeted with loud cheering.

A program of track-and-field competitions for members of the public followed. A number of soldiers stepped up to challenge the locals, adding to the interest. A lacrosse game followed. It turned out to be something of a rout, with Fergus trumping a visiting team from Preston by a score of 7-0.

Feeding such a large crowd at the Fergus lunch rooms and hotels would have been impossible. There were some refreshment stands at Victoria Park, but the chief source of food was at Melville Church. There, the women of the congregation offered food from 11am until, totally exhausted, they closed up shop at 8pm.

The evening entertainment was staged at the Agricultural Hall. A few local performers augmented the pipe band, the concert band and the brass band of the 91st. Outside, some members of the 91st, a few the worse for liquor, offered some impromptu gymnastic exercises.

Some visitors eschewed the concert, to the delight of Fergus bartenders.

The three special trains loaded up their passengers and managed to get under way a little after 11pm. Rounding up the men of the 91st took a little longer. Their train, with tired horses and exhausted men, headed back to Hamilton a little after 1am, and did not arrive at the James Street station there until 3:15am.

A few days later J.R. McLaughlin closed the accounts on the event. In the end he showed a profit of almost $100, to the relief of the committee and the disappointment of the nay-sayers who had claimed the program was too big for Fergus.


Stephen Thorning