Come to the Fair

By David Turner in Places, Events, & History

Fall fairs have been around for a long time, longer than Canada itself. The Listowel Fair is celebrating its 161st birthday this year. At their peak, there were some 500 registered fall fairs in Ontario. Although the numbers may have declined somewhat in recent decades and the events themselves have incorporated definite flea market overtones, fall fairs still basically subscribe to their original mandate of promoting agriculture and rural lifestyle. Some fairs have far outgrown their humble origins and developed into extravaganzas, such as Port Elgin’s “Pumpkinfest” or Kitchener-Waterloo’s “Ocktoberfest,” attracting tens of thousands of visitors. And even the diminutive village and small-town fairs, in order to maintain interest have developed themes promoting everything from apples, chili, corn and ribs to watermelon, strawberries, ice cream and garlic.
Regardless of scale, parades still play an important role in the fairs of today. When I was a kid growing up in Simcoe County, fall fairs constituted marching, lots of marching. To a short-legged five- or six-year-old it seemed like miles. Every school in the township was represented, with students attired in white shirts and blouses with contrasting trousers and skirts, accented by cardboard caps and sashes advertising their individual school section number and colours. There were brass and pipe bands, baton-swirling majorettes, floats, horses, kids on ponies, old tractors and cars, politicians throwing candies from convertibles, bicycles decorated with crepe paper, dogs dressed in pioneer costumes, cats in strollers.
My father grew up in Grey County, and although the village of Flesherton had a good local fair, the premium show of the year was thirty miles away, in Owen Sound. Although it was during the depths of the Great Depression, his family scraped together enough money for gasoline and admission to the big fair. Dad was in his mid-teens at this point and recalled the scene with clarity: the carnival atmosphere of clicking prize wheels, magicians, clowns, horse races, candy apples and cotton candy, as well as the numerous “sideshows.” These exhibits were the principal drawing card of the midway and the mystery of what lay hidden within the tents was designed to arouse audience curiosity.
Dad had been given a quarter to last the entire day, so thrift was paramount in his decision. What would it be? The world’s tallest woman? The world’s fattest man? How about a half man/half woman? No. Well how about the so-called wild man from Borneo or some such place who supposedly existed exclusively on raw meat? Along with these human misfits were animal freaks like the two-headed calf and the twin-tailed horse, or the bovine that was boldly advertised as “The cow with its head where its tail should be!” My father couldn’t resist that invitation and parted with a dime to see a Jersey cow merely turned around in its stall!
An important component of fall fair convention when I was young were the numerous school projects sanctioned through a cooperation between the governing boards of the school section and fall fair committee. Prizes for a variation of venues were offered: penmanship, cuisine, artwork, woodworking, etc. Vegetable displays were a common presentation – a five-cent packet of seeds was dispersed to any student who wished to compete. Designed to promote responsibility and a strong work ethic, each student was expected to nurture and maintain their plot until the crop matured. At the duration of the season, specimens that showed a high degree of potential were entered into competition which would hopefully culminate in a monetary prize.
I chose carrots, already imagining my submission upon completion to rival the photography of the perfectly-shaped specimens displayed on the front of the package. This anticipation and excitement quickly soured as a blanket of twitch grass and weeds congregated, and eventually threatened to smother my plot. Trying to hoe weeds in soil with the physical properties of concrete and being rewarded with carrots more resembling deformed sugar beets, was disappointing to say the least.
But with despair often comes reward; throughout that summer I couldn’t help but notice how well weeds thrived without any care whatsoever – no fertilizer, no watering, no hoeing! Why not grow them commercially and make that my fall fair contribution? My teacher procured some plastic phlebotomy tubes which I filled with specimens of ragweed, goldenrod, pigweed and milkweed among others, arranging the tubes in spoke-like fashion on a piece of bristle board. I pocketed the 50 cents, second prize for my effort. Although artistry was certainly not my forte, a year later, my 30 by 18 inch “safety poster” depicting numerous hazards found around a 1950s farm yard garnered me a fourth prize – 10 cents.
When moving to Perth County, we discovered school marching had been replaced by floats donated by individual farmers for fall fair activities. Our teacher, Mrs. Ashmore, was adamant that a school float should showcase all the students – often its downfall as events would prove. An “old-fashioned schoolhouse” was the theme one year. Our wagon was loaded with memorabilia from earlier in the century. With nearly thirty students on board, our props disappeared and the float simply transformed into a bunch of kids on a wagon. The school that claimed first prize, one we didn’t particularly care for incidentally, employed a “maypole” for its theme. A gleaming white pole anchored to a green carpet to simulate grass, while three or four kids holding coloured streamers attached to the apex of the pole, danced around it.
The actual significance of the maypole has intrigued scholars for centuries; its roots supposedly based in a European fertility festival held on the first day of May to celebrate the arrival of spring, new growth and romance. Young adults danced around the pole holding the above-mentioned coloured streamers, and as they circled and revolved, the streamers intertwined, substantiating the fertility theory. Some historians went as far as to equate the maypole with a phallic symbol. I somehow doubt that commemorating a centuries-old “sex festival” was the intention of the school in question, but whatever their objective, Mrs. Ashmore’s review was short and sarcastic; “A couple of kids, some fake grass and a fencepost…what imagination!”
A float that seemingly offered prize potential was our aptly but unimaginatively titled, “autumn” float. A couple of afternoons were spent cutting out leaf patterns from various coloured sheets of bristle board, than methodically stapling the manufactured leaves to the perimeter of the wagon rack. Several jute bags were sourced from a neighbourhood granary and stuffed with “real” leaves from our school backyard; these were deposited over the entire surface of the wagon floor just before departure. Straw bales and cornstalks, strategically positioned around the wooden platform, added further dimension. As I recall, we even half-buried a few of the smaller kids in piles of leaves to create an impression of children at play.
Utilizing her artistic talent, Mrs. Ashmore painted an autumn woodlot scene which we displayed on large cardboard sheets tacked to the rear rack of the wagon. This provided a colourful backdrop for the students standing around with rakes, wheelbarrows and other implements of the season. A foot high plywood apron graced either side of the wagon, and instead of merely stating our school section number with crayon or paint as was the norm, Mrs. Ashmore suggested U.S.S. # 11 WALLACE be advertised through a multitude of coloured leaves. Here we ran into a few problems; the first that the stapled leaves were too brittle, merely shattering when attached to the wood. Thumbtacks worked but looked terrible, while gluing proved to be merely a good idea that wasn’t. We finally settled on securing just the stem of the leaf to the wood with scotch tape.
Upon completion, the overall effect we thought to be quite striking and were unanimous in our conviction this float was worthy of a major prize. And if that chinook, or whatever it was, hadn’t sprung up en route and blown most of our effort away…it just
might have.