A big draw for families, fall fairs promote agriculture and connect us to our roots.
On a crisp autumn evening, nothing compares to the mingling aromas of spun sugar and sweet hay wafting down the midway. The season of fall fairs is upon us, and our communities boast a vibrant lineup stretching from August through October.
The tradition of the agricultural fair has been carried on for generations. Approximately 233 fairs continue to be held in Ontario each year.
Agricultural societies and agricultural fairs are institutions that were brought to Ontario by European settlers. The Agricultural Society of Upper Canada was founded in 1792. Gradually, other societies were formed across Ontario, with the purpose of improving the agrarian way of life. The movement spread throughout the 1800s, leaving a legacy of agricultural societies and fairs that are often the longest standing institutions in their communities.
Fall fairs began to be organized during periods of low workload, as a way for farmers to meet the public and exhibit their crops and livestock. Suppliers would also attend to meet with farmers and, hopefully, sell their wares. Entertainment was added to make the fair a more enjoyable event, and bolster attendance.
Today, the midway is synonymous with the fair. For many children, the flashy games and rides are the highlight of the weekend. Bradlee Redfern, 16, attends the Norwood and Millbrook fairs every year. He likes the rides, while his sister Alyssa, 12, likes the food, especially the fries and the fresh squeezed lemonade.
But, for Bradlee and Alyssa, the fair is more than Gravitrons and funnel cakes; they come to see other attractions too. Alyssa likes “the petting zoo”, where she gets to touch and feed the animals, while Bradlee – not surprisingly – “like(s) the smash-up derby.” In fact, the snarl of engines and the crunch of metal are a big draw at many fairs.
Fairs set out to entertain visitors from all walks of life, and provide a fun weekend for young and old alike. To that end, organizers arrange for a wide variety of attractions: music acts, antique tractor pulls, talent shows, baby pageants, and more.
Some fairs go all out. Each year, the Peterbo-rough Exhibition hosts the Ontario Demolition Derby, a chance for daring drivers to dress up a beater and take it for one last spin. Port Perry holds a rodeo bull riding event on Labour Day afternoon. Participants take their lives, or at least their spinal integrity, in their hands in what Sports Writers of America calls, “the most dangerous sport in the world.”
And this year, the Roseneath Fall Fair is hosting the Grass Hogs Lawn Tractor Races. Drivers ages 13 and up have the chance to compete for the title of fastest mower. Kids 8 to 13 compete in the junior division. This is serious stuff, with rules governing tractor modifications and driver conduct.
Agriculture at heart of fair
While attractions are brought in for entertainment purposes, “the bulk of the fair is promoting agriculture and educating people,” says Eileen Kennedy, Secretary/Treasurer of the Orono Fair.
Joy Petherick, President of the Campbellford Fair, feels the fair offers a meeting place for country and city. “I believe that agricultural fairs are the perfect place for rural and urban people to gain a better understanding of each other. … Urban people go to the fairs to have fun, but I think they’re also hoping to rediscover values they have almost forgotten,” Joy adds.
Fairs certainly showcase a different way of life, giving “urban kids a closer look at real life,” says Don Mitchell, Secretary of the Port Perry Fair. He notes that children living in big cities don’t often have the chance to get up close with livestock or familiarize themselves with agricultural processes.
At any fair’s heart is the exhibition of agrarian life. Participants can display their work with livestock, crops (biggest pumpkin) and homecrafts (pies, bread, and jellies) and compete for ribbons. Children don’t have to sit on the sidelines. Fairs give them an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and share their growing knowledge with others. With events like spelling bees, handwriting competitions, art exhibitions, peddle tractor pulls, and children’s pet shows, there is no shortage of opportunities for kids to showcase their talents and interests.
Sisters Kortney, 12, and Jordan, 9, have been entering projects in the Port Hope Fair’s art and photography category for several years, and have won lots of prizes. Participating in the fair is an enjoyable experience that provides a creative outlet for the girls, says mom Leanne. “They get very excited as we scan the tables with mounds of entries, looking for theirs and hoping that there’s a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place ribbon attached to it.”
The 4-H connection
Many young fair exhibitors are connected with 4-H clubs, which provide projects and camps to help kids develop self-confidence, responsibility, and leadership and life skills. Projects range from protecting our planet and scrapbooking, to woodworking and working with field crops and livestock.
According to Stephanie Craig, Senior Manager of Communications for 4-H Ontario, the 4-H organization has an integral partnership with local fairs that likely dates back to the club’s inception in 1915. Kids who complete farm projects – raising beef or dairy cows, or growing vegetables, etc. – are required to exhibit their work in a public place. That’s where the fall fairs come in.
Stephanie Warner began showing dairy calves when she was only four, and joined 4-H in Peterborough, when she was 10. Her fair resume is extensive, and includes the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. From those experiences, “I became more outgoing and more comfortable showing my calf in crowds,” says Stephanie.
Sylvia Megens, 17, is a member of the Durham-West 4-H Association. Attending fall fairs with the 4-H beef animal project has been a family tradition for over 15 years. Sylvia believes that, “the fall fair gives 4-H members, like myself, the chance to showcase my 4-H project while additionally (giving me) the opportunity to communicate with friends, relatives and meet unfamiliar faces, which allows me to stay actively involved with the community.”
Sylvia feels that fairs continue to have relevance for young people today. “Fall fairs have more meaning to me than rides, games, and cotton candy. To me, the fall fair means the chance for everyone, young and old, to take advantage of educating one another and have the opportunity to create everlasting memories and traditions.”
Fall fairs bring people together, urban and rural alike. They educate, promote, and improve agrarian life. And they produce fond autumn memories for families to share.