Harrow Fair History
Our Colchester South and Harrow Agricultural Society Fair has become a favorite end of summer event for Essex County and beyond. It is a chance for 'the locals' to visit with their neighbours, grown children to come home to visit with family and catch up with friends, and grandmas and grandpas to show their grandchildren what living in rural Essex County is all about. It also gives those 'city folk' a chance to show their children where that glass of milk or those ingredients for their morning bagel really come from.
The Harrow Fair is one of the most successful fairs in our area. We are a member of the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies, District 9. There are 15 districts in Ontario and six Fairs in our district. Our attendance for 2003 was estimated at 70,000 people. There were 1,608 registered members and over 7,000 entries submitted and judged. The Fair is held over four days on Labour Day Weekend but it requires weeks of preparation before our gates are even opened. All this is accomplished by the hard work of 18 directors on the Main Board, 27 Directors on the Homecrafts Board, 50 Associate Directors, 30 Junior Directors, innumerable volunteers and several community groups. The most important part of the Fair however, are the people who participate and attend. If we did not have the turnout that we do each year there would be no need to put on the Harrow Fair.
One thing that has remained constant over the years is that the Fair Directors have been dedicated to making sure that the Harrow Fair remains the agricultural fair it always has been for the last 150 years. This has always been our concern. The Amherstburg Echo reported in 1908, The Directors keep in mind the purely agricultural side of the exhibit; and the next year it was reported Nowhere in the county is greater interest taken in the progressive agriculture than in the township of Col. S. and the methods that have proved so effective here are reflected in the Fall Fair which has a name in Essex for the agricultural exhibition of the county.
In 1854 we received our seal from the Government of Ontario and we are now celebrating the150th anniversary of the incorporation of the Colchester Agricultural Society. Our roots go even further back than this however. In Ontario the first Agricultural society was formed in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1792. Other societies were organized by counties and townships and at one time numbered over 500 in Ontario alone. Their formation was as a result of the interest from farmers and the government to improve livestock, upgrade agricultural methods and crops, promote ideas for crop rotation, the development of better farming implements, an awareness of new labour saving devices as well as providing prizes for domestic manufacturers. A society was formed in Colchester Township in 1836 but did not truly organize until May of 1844 when the Colchester Agricultural Club was formed. They were interested in improving local livestock and traveled great distances to purchase pedigree Devon, Durham and Ayrshire bulls, a heifer, South Down rams and stallions. In 1850 they became the Colchester South Agricultural Society.
The first fairs were more like sales where your membership would give you a chance to show and sell livestock, seed grains and implements. The livestock displayed were horses, fat cattle, milch cows, sheep and pigs. Also, a number of thoroughbred short horn Durhams were available. These early sales were held at different farms in the area on a quarterly basis. The first annual fair was held in October of 1878 and this was much like our Fair today. There were 530 entries with a long prize list of fruit, vegetables, ladies' work, horses, cattle, sheep, swine, poultry, grain and seeds, roots and field crops, and dairy products. The first Fair was held behind the old town hall on the Alfred Munger farm, north of King and near present day Church Street. The brick town hall, built in 1872, was used for the exhibits of fruit, vegetables and ladies' work.
Eventually a central location of seven acres was purchased in 1880 from Richard McLean at a cost of $525.00 paid by the Colchester township. The following year a large floral hall and stock pens were planned and the grounds were fenced. In addition, a plowing bee was organized to get the grounds in order for the next annual fair but unfortunately the turnout was poor. They were more successful with a benefit dinner to raise money for these projects however. The benefit was held in the Town Hall where dinner was provided for 25 cents and 50 cents would allow you to stay for the music and dancing. They were able to raise $100 that evening.
The Colchester Agricultural Society was also a social club of sorts. In 1884 they held their fourth annual picnic and between 1,000 to 1,200 people attended. With the arrival of the railway, excursions to Belle Isle were featured for a few years. Base ball games became a favorite summer pastime and were played on our grounds. (see postcard in display cabinet). In 1889 the society gave the Red Star Harrow club the use of the grounds if they took care of the buildings, fences and new ornamental trees.
As the fair continued to be successful it had expanded to a two day fair by 1901. In 1902 an additional nine acres was purchased from Augustus Klie with Grant money of $1,200 from Colchester Township and an additional $150 from the society, totaling $1,350. With the increased acreage, the Board decided to build a half mile horse race track. They issued a call to volunteers to assist in grading the track and fifty or more turned out with nearly twenty teams of horses. An enormous amount of work was done. The track was ploughed, harrowed, rolled and graded. In addition a large stone heap on the south end was removed and stumps were blown up. When done the track was as good as any in the county.
In 1905 100 maple trees were bought at a cost of $25 to plant around the Fair Ground. Of this cost Harrow had paid $10. A poultry house and horse barn were erected over the ensuing years. The barn had 14 single stalls and 4 double stalls. There was not room for all the stock at this time however. Cattle, swine and sheep were tied along the west fence that was all right in fair weather but hard on the stock in the event of rain. The midway was very popular and there were fruit, taffy and candy stands galore.
The 1907 Fair Board minutes reported that the entertainment that year was put on by the Presbyterian church with added features from Detroit. The local talent included Miss Vida Webster, piano soloist, and a quartet composed of Miss Ella Wright, Mrs. Garrett, Mr. Madill and Mr. Knapp. Miss Edna Boussey was the accompanist and she and Mrs Garrett also gave several fine duets.
Outside space was given to different local businesses as it is today. It was reported in 1908 that the manufacturers were crowded to the east end. Gray Co. had their celebrated carriages and also Conklin & Son, of Kingsville. W.F. McKenzie had 5 of their well known hand made carriages. Macdonald & Son of Harrow showed Munroe and McIntosh carriages. Today these carriages have been replaced by the cars and trucks displayed our local dealership but the opportunity to browse, ask a few questions or strike a deal remains the same. In 1911 C. Richards & Son brought an ambitions display of many of the articles found on sale in their palatial hardware store. A full line of Canada ranges and stoves including a 'baby' stove, Art Garland heaters, and improved Tortoise heater with laundry top and new Perfection oil stoves.
In 1912 a petition was circulated by several horsemen and signed by 183 ratepayers asking the council to purchase 6 or more acres of land for a regulation race track. The sale did not take place however, and the land was later purchased by the School Board for use by the High School.
The fair continued to grow and by 1930 it had expanded to a three day fair and remained so for several years. During the 1940 war years the exhibition and dining halls housed a high school boy's work camp for agriculture labour.
As time passed the area surrounding the Fair grounds filled. In 1952 the School Board paid the society $1,000 to move their cattle barn from the west side of the park near where the parking lot is today. The Board was also given the right a way to use the parking lot as long as they maintained it in good repair. The Society celebrated their Centennial in 1954 and erected a special arched entranceway and the Fair was opened by the Premier that year. As a result of the community's wish for an arena, a site was arranged in 1970 and the Society widened the gates for the school buses, and of course the parade combines, and had lights installed. The arena has expanded since then to include a Day Care, exercise facility, HEIRS office and community room. In 1980 the picnic shelter was built and has become the site of many family reunions and a great place to enjoy something to eat during the Fair. Tennis courts had been located on the grounds since 1904, but they were replaced by three asphalt surface courts north of the arena in 1989.
The Society suffered a huge loss on October 19, 1981 when the main Exhibition Hall burned down but it was also a great boon to us since our present building offers us much more space. The rambling wooden building that had been added on to and expanded on over the years was gone and we were faced with the decision as to what size and type of building to replace it with. In 1983 we dedicated our brand new building which is equipped with a kitchen, rest rooms and large hall and today boasts air conditioning too. The building serves as an exhibition hall and office during the Fair but is available for the public to lease throughout the year. It has been the site of community dances, weddings, family parties, commercial meetings and events, auctions and antique shows among other events. In 1992 we were honoured when we were asked to house the Essex County Agricultural Hall of Fame. Visitors to our building today can see the photo gallery that is located on the north wall with all of the Hall of Fame inductees displayed. Among those pictured on the wall are several past directors of the Fair, Lawrence Bridgen, J.L. Capstick, Allan Haggins, Howard Holden, Alvin Laramie, Elmer Salter and Max Smith. Also a volunteer, Al Hamel, and judge, Abe Teich rank among the honourees.
Due to growing interest in our Fair we had expanded to a four day fair in the early 1980s. Numerous entries are dropped off on Wednesday, judged on Thursday, and are on display until Sunday at 5:00. During the fair there are various events scheduled, an assortment of entertainment offered and a midway for all to enjoy, young and old. The Pie Auction has become a favoured event on Thursday evening. With the help of Jack Morris, pie entries designated for the Pie Auction are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The money raised through this event has been donated to the Children's Rehabilitation Centre and to date the amount is in excess of $40,000. Following the auction our opening ceremonies takes place finishing off with an evening of entertainment. Friday sees such events as the Registered Halflinger show, heavy horse show, draft pony show, registered Shetland Pony show, beef judging, roller pigeon contest and another evening of entertainment. In addition, we have several children's events scheduled, Teddy Bear Parade, Mom Calling Contest, stage entertainment and the Fish races, another event which raises funds for charity. Saturday is looked forward to by all since it features our Parade. Numerous local groups and businesses wind the streets of Harrow with two bands performing along the way. Children are also featured in costume or on their decorated bicycles, warming everyone's hearts as they try to keep up. Other events are dairy judging, tractor pull, rooster crowing contest, outhouse races and afternoon and evening entertainment. The final day for the Fair, Sunday, starts out with an ecumenical church service with various churches and their choirs participating. Following are the light horse show, goat show, children's pedal tractor pull, pet show and stage entertainment. The Essex County 4H are also an integral part of our schedule and their various clubs such as sheep, poultry, riding, swine, beef and dairy to name a few participate by showing their animals which are judged and also various club displays are judged too. If someone was to try to catch every single event they would be busy from 9:00 each morning until about 12:00 each night but most of us need to sit for a while in a shady spot and just rest our feet or enjoy something delicious to eat.
One pleasant result of celebrating our anniversary is that we ourselves are becoming more informed about our Colchester South and Harrow Agricultural Society's past. We have been quizzing our more senior members as to what they remember about the fair 'way back when' and have been told many interesting stories.
Horse racing took place from 1902 through the early 1950s. The races were run according to breed and the horses were raced bareback, no saddles. There were also sulky, or cart racing, with wooden wheels in the earlier years and later rubber. The race track circled the edges of the grounds going around the Cement Block building at the north end where the Ladies Board sell their ice cream sandwiches today, out the side gate south of the Scout Hall, south through the present day parking lot and turning at the present day site of the Arena. It then ran past the grandstand, across the back of the grounds and up along the east fence. The present day roadway at the east and north side of the grounds are what still remains of the raceway.
The races were enjoyed by the horse enthusiasts and the spectators alike but they were not the only ones who looked forward to the races. It is remembered that a horse owned by Les Tofflemire in the 1940s loved the races so much that he would take to the track riderless and would circle until he was out of wind. Obviously his owner did not have to encourage him too much to race. The track was used for racing until the early 1950s when the southern end was eventually worked up and leveled out. Rodeos were performed for several years in this area.
An additional use of the track was for the Livestock Parade. Concluding the judging of the livestock events on Saturday, the dairy, beef, horses and horse drawn wagons were paraded around the north end of the track after the last event of the day about 4 o'clock for everyone to enjoy. This practice was continued until the early 1950s (see bristol board display for pictures.
Chicken dinners were served on Friday and Saturdays at noon in a dinning hall which stood where our present day Arts and Crafts building is located. They were prepared on a rotational basis by the local churches wishing to participate. It is unclear when this practice started but it was continued until the late 1940s. When dinner was ready a young boy or girl would walk the fair grounds ringing the dinner bell as they went calling all in for a delicious lunch. A poem written about the Fair sometime in the early to mid 1900s states:
Until the Fair moved to the Labour Day weekend, each area school, which were mostly one room schools at that time, participated in a school parade. The children would meet at the Harrow Public school and would parade into the Fair grounds behind their school banner. For participating, each child would receive midway tickets for several rides with their friends. It was a much anticipated event by the children.
A popular event for the children from the late 1930s through the early 40s was the greased pig contest. A small pig was greased with fat drippings and was released in a penned area. The children had the best of time trying to catch the pig and be the winner but it was not an easy task. Parents were happy to have their children participate and I'm sure they overlooked the mess but I can just imagine how much fun the rest of the day would have been covered in grease.
The forerunner of today's tractor pulls were the Heavy Horse drawing matches. Cement blocks were placed on floats and the team of horses drawing the heaviest load the farthest was the winner. These draws were started sometime before WWII and were held until there were no more big horses in the county. Pony draws took their place from the 1960s until the 1970s that today have been replaced by the tractor pulls.
In 1969, we celebrated our 115th anniversary and were honoured by the presence of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, William Ross MacDonald, who opened our fair. A special dinner of Ontario grown and inspired dishes was served at the United Church and many of the local residents attended. Our parade was special that year with commemorative floats and our Lady Directors dressed in historical costumes and were included in the parade also.
Our current attendance of 70,000 has grown substantially from the early 1900s where it had been reported in The Echo that "unless one stood on a street corner and gazed at the great line of vehicles and mass of humanity that poured itself 3,000 strong into the gates, one could not appreciate what it meant for Colchester South to turn out to a fair. They started to come at dawn, and at dusk the air was thick with dust as they left." As Directors today we are often amazed at the number of people who walk the grounds, crowd the grandstand, line the parade route, wander through the buildings or barns or just stand in line for dinner. We often wonder where we are going to put them all sometimes and also wonder when will they call it a night. Obviously our Directors and volunteers enjoy what we do or there would not be a Harrow Fair. We know and trust that there will always be people willing to carry on the tradition as it has been done for these last 150 years and wish them as much fun and satisfaction as we all have had.
Here are a few Fair facts that may be of interest.
- 1887 - 97
- 2003 - 1,608 (542 Juniors included)
Total Number of Classes:
- 1880 - 11
- 2003 - 85
Total Number of Sections:
- 1880 - 250
- 2003 - 2,300
Total Number of Entries Submitted:
- 1878 - 530
- 2003 - 7,112
Cost of Membership:
- 1854 - $1.00
- 2003 - $5.00