The heyday of Wellington County’s fall fairs

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 other day I heard a longtime farmer lament the reduced place of the fall fair in the fabric of Wellington County.

Fall fairs and agricultural society shows have been important events since the 1850s, but they don’t have the profile they did a couple of generations ago.

Though agriculture remains by far the largest industry in the county, it directly involves a smaller and smaller portion of the population.

As well, towns and villages have lost the agricultural orientation to their economies. On top of all this, fall fairs must compete for attention with the multitude of mindless diversions that characterize contemporary society.

I decided to have a look at the fall fairs of 1952 – a time within the memory of many readers of this column. This was in the midst of a period of optimism for farmers: prices were rising, new technologies were bringing increased efficiencies to agriculture, and a flood of new consumer items improved the quality of farm family life.

Agricultural societies in 1952 scheduled their fairs roughly two weeks later than today. The season in the north opened with the Mount Forest Fair on Sept. 13 and 15. The 1952 fair opened with a few events on the Saturday, the full fair on Monday, and nothing at all on the intervening Sunday. The directors chose this date to avoid conflict with other fairs in the area.

Ideal weather brought out a record crowd. The Saturday events, consisting of a preview and a concert, attracted about 800 people. Competitive entries filled one end of the arena, and displays by local merchants and automotive dealers the other. The St. Andrew’s Highlanders band provided music during the evening. Entries in baking, home canning and flowers were down slightly from 1951, but this was more than offset by the livestock entries.

Monday’s crowd staggered the organizers: 6,500 people crowded onto the grounds, while traffic and parked cars choked the main street and several side streets. The judges began their work early in the morning, and various dignitaries participated in the official opening at 1pm.

An unpleasant discovery soured the moods of officials when they opened the arena Monday morning. Thieves had broken in sometime Sunday, and made off with all the candy in the children’s displays, along with some prize cakes, pies and other goodies from the baking competition.

The Mount Forest school band and the St. Andrews pipe band alternated in providing music during the afternoon. The grandstand was packed for the afternoon with spectators viewing the parade of competing cattle and horses, and for the horse races.

A special feature of the fair was the Hereford competition. It attracted 80 entries from across southern Ontario. Harry Thur of Elmira captured the most prizes.

The regular cattle competition had a total of 95 entries, including five herds of Shorthorns and three of Aberdeen Angus. Dr. J.P. Dippel had the best Shorthorns, and Emke Bros. of Elmwood took the most prizes in the Angus classes.

The sheep classes featured some excellent entries, but swine were down from 1951 in numbers. A surprise was the interest in horses. There were 123 entries, and some excellent teams of draft horses. Best of these belonged to George Jackson of Fergus.

The presence of Tory Gregg, popular radio personality from CKNX in Wingham, helped keep the crowd at attention. He provided a running commentary during the afternoon on the competitions and races in front of the stands.

The evening concluded with a concert that drew more than 800 people. A dance at the Oddfellows Hall followed, capping the most successful Mount Forest Fair in memory.

Fair organizers set their dates to avoid conflicts as much as possible. One conflict occurred the next day, with fairs scheduled at Clifford and Orangeville for Sept. 16 and 17.

The Clifford Fair, a small, local affair, did not suffer greatly from the competition. Tuesday events consisted largely of the placing of exhibits and socializing, topped off with a dance at the Town Hall featuring the Clifford Rhythmaires.

The next day, the girls bugle band from Norwell High School led a parade to the grounds. Clifford’s school children marched in formation. The fair ended with a concert at the Town Hall and a play, performed by the Normanby Junior Farmers.

Next on the fair schedule for north Wellington was the Drayton Fair, or more formally, the Annual Exhibition of the Peel, Maryborough and Drayton Agricultural Society, held on Sept. 20 and 22. Like Mount Forest, this fair bracketed a Sunday.

Saturday’s events consisted largely of preparations and set-up work until the evening, when Bern Conway and his troupe from London put on a variety show in the rink. The performance was well received: many attending were pleased that Conway avoided crudeness and vulgarity, two characteristics that have never been popular with Drayton audiences.

The fair organizers scored a coup when the Lt. Governor of Ontario, Louis Breithaupt, agreed to open the event. Local politicians crowded the platform to be photographed with the distinguished visitor.

Prior to the opening, the traditional fall fair parade marched into the grounds. The St. Andrews Pipe Band of Mount Forest led the procession, followed by the pupils of Drayton Public, S.S. 6, 9, 12, 14 and 18 of Maryborough, and 3, 5 and 6 of Peel. The Lt. Governor arrived by motorcade, accompanied by elected officials from the county and escorted by OPP officers on motorcycles. At the end of the opening ceremonies, Louis Breithaupt declared the rest of the day a holiday for the school children.

Unlike Mount Forest, the entries in the flower, canning and domestic classes exceeded those of previous years. Several merchants had displays, as did Beatty Bros. of Fergus (with a model kitchen in a trailer), and the Wellington Cream Producers Association.

Outside there were midway rides. A group of clowns, actually members of one of the service clubs, kept the grounds lively by darting around in their “Drayton Police Car.” The joke was well received: Drayton council had been discussing the hiring of a police officer for months, but couldn’t reach a decision.

During the afternoon, the Drayton Women’s Institute had the exhausting task of serving refreshments to never-ending lineup in front of their stand.

Tory Gregg of CKNX handled the microphone duties at the grandstand, delivering a clever commentary for the livestock judging and calling the horse races. A tractor rodeo punctuated the parade of livestock and horses.

In 1952 some farmers still relied partially or totally on horses for their farm work, though the number was diminishing rapidly. Nevertheless, competition in the horse show, and particularly the draft horse classes, was keener than ever. Part of the reason was a $100 donation by W.R. Potter for additional prize money.

Competitors arrived from all over the county and as far as Teeswater and Mildmay. Potter’s donation, and the regional reputation of the competition, prompted the directors to bill the event as “The Biggest Little Horse Show in Western Ontario.” The name stuck for many years.

The entertainment Monday night consisted of an amateur show and competition, hosted by Johnny Brent, the CKNX announcer. Entrants offered a full range of singing, pantomime, tap dancing, magic, and musical and novelty acts.

The judges used an applause meter to assist in making their decisions. Top prize of $40 went to Lorraine Holliday of Mount Forest for her acrobatic dancing. “The 3 Grandmothers,” a novelty orchestra from Wingham, came in second. The evening ended with a dance to the music of the Moorefield Orchestra, with lunch served by members of the fair board.

With the good weather and the Lt. Governor on the grounds, the 1952 Drayton fair set a record for attendance. More than 3,000 paid admissions on the Monday afternoon, and this figure does not include the hundreds of children on the grounds.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 18, 2002.

Thorning Revisited