Fall Fairs Struggle in Modern Times

Rural attractions need to appeal to a wider audience

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Jodey Nurse

Jodey Nurse was just four years old when she showed her first calf in a fall fair. She’d grown up on a dairy farm near Georgetown, so “as soon as I could walk and hold onto the calf, I was in the show ring,” she says.

It must have been a good experience, because she kept going back. As a child she was very active in 4H, and eventually joined the agricultural society that runs her local fair.

Then she turned her love of cotton candy, livestock shows and midway rides into a thesis paper.

Inspired by her memories, Nurse has completed her MA thesis on the Peel County Fall Fair (now the Brampton Fall Fair) and is doing her PhD research on the history of women’s involvement in fall fairs. Her work has attracted attention from CBC Radio; she was interviewed in early September for the Fresh Air program to share what she learned about the history and importance of these annual gatherings in Ontario. Nurse completed her undergrad degree in history at Queen’s University and is now studying at U of G.

Today, there are 230 fall fairs. Some, Nurse admits, are struggling, especially those close to large cities where there is more competition. While the first fairs were basically livestock shows organized by gentlemen farmers, politicians and others who wanted to improve farming by better breeding of animals and plants, over time they began to aim for a broader audience. Today, there is often real tension among the fair organizers about how much space should be devoted to agriculture, usually with an educational component for the city kids who attend, and how much should be for entertainment and midway rides.

In earlier years, though, there may have been the same tension around how much women should be involved and recognized. At first, the additions to the livestock and vegetable classes were called “home manufacturing” and included entries of bread, butter and cheese – all traditionally made by farm women. You might not have guessed that from looking at the labels on the items, though, as all were entered under the names of the women’s husbands.

Within 10 years, though, Nurse says that categories for quilts, knitting and fancywork were added. “The women wanted to go beyond the staples and show off their talents – and the fact that they increasingly had the leisure time to make these things,” she says. A woman could eventually enter as “Mrs. William Smith” but it took several more decades before her jar of jam could be submitted under her own first name.

Women were also excluded from the agricultural societies that ran the fairs for many years. Even the manager of the “women’s department” was a man, although minutes of meetings sometimes listed the men who attended by name and added that some of their wives were also present. At the Erin Fall Fair, for example, the first woman Nurse could find listed as a director of the board was in 1929.

In the 1910s and 1920s, a popular fall fair event was the baby contest, Nurse says. While today some fall fairs give prizes for the baby with the most hair or the cutest smile, in those days prizes went to the “healthiest baby” and the contestants were judged by a panel of doctors and nurses.

In the 1940s and 1950s, fair queen and dairy princess competitions became popular. “These seemed to be basically beauty contests,” says Nurse. Today they are more often called fair ambassador competitions and are open to both men and women who deliver a speech to win the award.

After the Second World War, Nurse found women’s involvement in all aspects of the fairs increased. “They were not just doing the food and fancywork, they were sometimes showing livestock and they participated more on the fair boards.” Today, women play a major role in running and taking part in all aspects of the fall fairs.

While Nurse’s research focuses on the history of fall fairs, she’s willing to make a few predictions about the future. “People enjoy going to fall fairs,” she says. “They are important community events in many areas. They bring together all the groups and organizations. I think they play a big role in education: people want to know where their food comes from.”

Nurse sees the challenges, too. Fall fairs rely on volunteers and there are fewer people who have the time to run this kind of event. The rural population is also decreasing, so the fairs often add more entertainment to attract more city visitors. “I think as long as they can keep that focus on promoting agriculture, people will still want to go to the fair,” says Nurse.