HISTORY OF OUR FAIR
The First 100 Years
Authors/Researchers: Anna Tokarz & Ruth Ferguson
Although fairs have been held ever since making established settled communities, there is only one fair as far as residents, and former residents, of West Elgin are concerned. It is the Wallacetown Fair, now marking its official 150th anniversary.
Like other great institutions its early beginnings are veiled in mystery. It is a bit startling for those of us who thought Wallacetown Fair went back to time immemorial to learn that it was originally held in New Glasgow, core of the first Scottish section of the Talbot Settlement.
Some records indicate that an Elgin County Fair was held there as early as 1853 – the year Elgin separated from Middlesex and began its separate existence as a county. Later East and West Elgin branches were establish and it appears than the first West Elgin Fair was held at New Glasgow on October 19, 1860 under the sponsorship of the newly formed West Elgin Agricultural Society. James McKinley was president.
The three townships of Southwold, Dunwich and Aldborough formed the West Elgin Agricultural Society. It soon became obvious that New Glasgow was too far west for convenience. After a heated controversy, not unaccompanied by physical violence, it was decided to move the fair to the more central location of Wallacetown.
Sometime in the 1860s the Canadian militia was reorganized to meet the threat of the Fenian Raids. A company was centered at Wallacetown, where a drill shed was built and a parade-ground established on the farm of John Leslie Pearce.
Although there were still a few stumps in the field it was a comparatively clear and level area. The owner of the land and the commander of the company permitted the fair to use these facilities. In 1869, after the peril of the Fenian Raids had passed, the five-acre plot was purchased from Mr. Pearce. Not until 1900 did a payment of $5.00 bring formal title to the drill shed from the federal government. In 1875, 1904 and 1937 subsequent purchases brought the size of the fair grounds to the present 20.34 acres.
From the beginning and throughout its history the Wallacetown Fair has reflected the activities of the community and combined entertainment with exhibitions of the best currently available in live stock and farm produces as well as the baking and handicrafts of women of the community.
It is interesting in this age of automation to learn that a century ago the introduction of farm machinery was inaugurating an agricultural revolution. The 1860 report says: "The great disparity heretofore existing between the price of manual labor and agricultural produce has been a great drawback to all farming operations and improvements; but the introduction, lately, of reaping and mowing machines, and in fact, of all the improved manual labor-saving machines of the present age, on a large scale in this section of the country, has so reduced farm laborers’ and mechanics’ wages as to render farming an agreeable and profitable undertaking nowadays; and improved farms have consequently increased much in value. Some two years ago, when a good farm hand would, during harvest time command from one dollar and a half to two dollars per diem, a 200-acre lot with house, barn and driving sheds, and say 80 acres of clearance, could have been purchased in a good locality, convenient to markets, in this county for about $28 an acre; whereas now, when farm hands can be hired for one-half the amount, the same farm would bring at least $40 an acre."
Early exhibitions featured displays of working oxen and for many years prizes were given for the fastest walking teams. It was not until the 1875 addition to the fairgrounds that a quarter-mile track was established and the trotting races, so soon to become an important feature of the fair, started, The 1937 addition made possible a half-mile track, and in 1947 modernization was completed with the introduction of starting gates.
Finances have been a continuing problem. John L. Pearce was long treasurer and as banking facilities were lacking he used to keep the fair money at home. Friends would escort him to and from the fairgrounds.
Admittance and entry fees were never enough to meet expenses. They were supplemented by subscriptions, government grants, and payments from township and county councils and donation from firms and individuals. Occasionally, individuals in the neighborhood would advance money and the names of David Bobier and John McFarland were connected with various loans. Later the banks took over this part of the fundraising.
Rain has been a recurrent problem. In 1909 the Ontario Government established a rain insurance policy for local fairs and this saved the Wallacetown show in the particularly bad year of 1912. However, the weather exhausted the fund shortly afterwards.
Once Wallacetown nearly lost its fair for reasons similar to those which brought it from New Glasgow. Building of the Canada Southern Railway in 1873 made Dutton a strong competitor. From that time until 1913 periodic efforts were made to move the fair to Dutton. But the arrival of the motor-car soon shifted the balance back to Wallacetown.
Although Wallacetown Fair has been primarily an agricultural exhibition, aimed at improvement of livestock and farming methods, entertainment has always been a feature. At the first fair there was a piper and music has been a constant accompaniment. As early as 1883 there was a bicycle race. Horse races have been increasingly important. Punch and Judy shows and a merry-go-round were the forerunners of the current midways. The year after World War One ended and airplanes appeared and took up those who were sufficiently daring and affluent. Among the special attractions at various times were a tug-o’-war in 1901, an auto demonstration in 1912, a plowing match in 1924, a potato race, Shetland pony race, musical chair race, greyhound races and chariot races in later years. One of the most hilarious features was a milking contest.
No mention of Wallacetown Fair would be complete without a reference to John R. Gow, one of the early presidents and long the superintendent of the grounds. As late as 1932 five people attended the fair who had been there in 1860. Storey Backus and his sister, Mrs. Thomas L. Pearce, had never missed a fair in that period. John R. Gown, Mrs. Dama Lumley and a Mr. Clark had missed only one. Others have a shorter record, but few who have attended Wallacetown Fair ever wish to miss a subsequent show. And the Centennial will be bigger and better than ever.
The Last 50 Years
Considerable work has been done to improve the appearance of the buildings that have stood for many years. In 1952, D. Peter McPherson, former Secretary donated the brick for the Secretary’s office and financial help was given by Coyne’s Farmers’ Club. In 1958 a new judges’ stand was erected and in 1960 a new ticket office and Centennial Gates were built at the entrance of the fair grounds in honour of all past presidents and directors of the fair. A Dedication Service was held on Friday, September 30th, 1960 with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in attendance.
Many improvements have been made to the fair grounds in the last 50 years. Iron gates were added to the front entrance as an addition to the Centennial gates. In 1975 the hydro to the grounds was upgraded and the washrooms painted with a fence between the Harrison’s property bordering the west side of the fairground erected and the building roofs painted the following year.
The next four years saw 4 new structures added to the grounds – a new 48’ by 120’ exhibit building in 1977, which now houses the homecraft and general exhibits; 1978 - a 40’ by 72’ by 10’ building (now the Roots and Grains building) was erected to replace the original structure that was lost in a strong wind storm. The cement floor was poured the following year. Two 24’ by 100’ cattle shelters were built in 1980.
While the property is solely owned by the Wallacetown Agricultural Society, community use of the grounds has been encouraged for many years. Soccer fields were created in the infield in 1977 with two additional soccer fields and a baseball diamond set up in the north east corner of the grounds behind the fair office in 1981 with another soccer field added in 1990.
The sheep shelter was added adjacent to the cattle shed in 1985 and in 1989, the existing grandstand was torn down in 1989 and a new 96’ by 24’ built on the east side of the track.
Horses have been part of the fair and harness horses have used the grounds as a training facility for many years. Upgrades to the track were undertaken in the late 1980s with gravel and bedding sand applied. In infield corral, used by the local saddle club, was rebuilt in 1995.
Many changes and upgrades to the grounds have taken place in the last 15 years. A large 4-H building was constructed as well as a new, significantly larger Junior Fair building. The perimeter of the fairgrounds is now entirely fenced, as is the infield circling the track. Waterlines, hydro upgrades and drainage have been major undertaking to make the facilities and the grounds more user friendly, most notably recently converting the old sheep shed into accessible washroom and storage facilities. The project was also designed to allow an indoor cattle show ring to be accessed in case of rain.
The small stage and race tower were torn down and a new, portable stage built which has been used by many other groups. A dedicated tractor pull track was a major undertaking but all those that pull on it praise the board for the quality of the construction. With the support of the local horticultural society, both entrances to the grounds have been landscaped. The society still constantly works at maintaining and upgrading the grounds with additional lighting and building repairs undertaken to make the fair more attractive both during the day and under the stars.
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