One day at the fair

Fairs have been around for more than a century in the Fraser Valley. Many had to evolve to get past COVID-19. This year, they are making their comeback. As always, the fair must go on. Part three of a three-part series.

By Grace Kennedy | August 13, 2021 |9:30 am

Imagine you are standing inside the red barn at Chilliwack’s Heritage Park. Outside, the rain is falling—you can see it through the open doorway near the beef cattle—but inside the barn is warm and dry.

The heavy scent of hay and farm animals sneaks through your mask, and dust curls around your boots. A young girl in matching white shirt and pants brushes her four-month-old dairy calf. Two blue ribbons are tied around the girl’s wrist. Neighbouring cows with names like Lone Prairie Jamie Helga and Nacho are standing placidly in rows chewing cud, or lying down on soft beds of sawdust.

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Are you there yet? That was me last Saturday, visiting the 149th annual Chilliwack Fair. Except for a few details, it could have been the same fair Eileen Cross visited in 1953, which I told you about in the first part of this article. Of course, Eileen probably wasn’t welcomed at the gates by a scanner reading an electronic ticket off her smartphone. And there probably weren’t signs hanging off the rabbit cages reminding people to social distance. But you know what they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Children look through the bars at a white Brahman cow wearing a pink halter.
One of the cattle on display at the Chilliwack Fair was a Brahman beef cow, which is a cross between a zebu and a taurine, and adapted for high temperatures. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The entrance to Chilliwack Fair takes you through Heritage Park’s big red barn, which is divided into four smaller barns. Three are packed with 4-H club animals: stalls of horses, pens of goats and llamas, cages of chickens and ducks. Some are of the ordinary sort: your Holstein cattle or your Leghorn chickens. Others are more exotic: a Brahman cow, a heat-tolerant hybrid with long rabbit-like ears; a bearded white silkie chicken, which has soft fluffy feathers covering its face and body.

After touring the animal barns, you might wander over to the Home and Garden Barn, where artisans display their work and where prize-winning exhibits are showcased. Peter Prevost has a half-finished totem pole on display, and the beaded blanket on the table in front of him hearkens back to mid-century newspaper reports about Indigenous artwork at the Chilliwack Fair. Outside, visitors watch Gary Savard perform magic tricks under a tent, while rain drips onto the participants in the ranch sorting competition.

Chilliwack Fair featured all this and more last weekend. But the biggest part of any fair—more than the cows, more than the mini donuts—is the community.

Two older women look at floral displays at the Chilliwack Fair.
Visitors examined the dozens of floral arrangements on display at the Chilliwack Fair. 📸 Grace Kennedy

In the floral arts section of the exhibition, I saw at least one familiar name: Victoria Brookes, the president of the Agassiz Agricultural and Horticultural Association and who we met earlier in the story. There was also the young son of a former colleague, who won a ribbon for his crackerjack marigolds and fourth place for his cucumbers. Heading to the poultry barn, we walked past the man who taught my husband how to swim. Outside we saw the Rotary train taking families in a loop around the fairgrounds—the train my husband helped build as a highschooler.

“The reason we’ve been able to be successful and keep going is because we have community involvement,” Cathy Oss, the fair’s president, had told me in an interview two weeks ago. You could feel that in the air last weekend, from the local food trucks to the toddler who gleefully ran towards a concerned-looking sheep shouting “baaa!”

That wasn’t my toddler: she was more interested in the cows, goats, and rabbits. We spent a long time crouched by the sow and her piglets—one of the more popular exhibits, Oss had said—and wandered in the rain looking at the llamas preparing for their obstacle course. We ate lunch in the rodeo stands between ranch sorting pools. We pondered the glass case of prize-winning baked goods. Eventually, it was time for us to go. We did one last loop of the sheep, goats, llamas, and cattle, then stopped for a final look at the high performance show ring.

Youth, wearing WestGen-sponsored headbands with their white uniforms, had been parading their dairy cows in and out of the show ring all morning. As a new batch of cows were led into the ring, a group gathered in the stands to watch. “It’s good practice for the Agassiz Fair,” one woman said to another.

There, at the Agassiz Fall Fair’s 116th anniversary, the 4-H clubs will once again gather to win ribbons for their cattle, sheep, chickens, and rabbits. Examples of canning, produce, and quilting will fill the Agricultural Hall. The fairgrounds will be filled with rides for three days.

The theme this year will be Agassiz Strong—a bit of a departure from the years of the dog, corn, or pumpkin. But Agassiz has been strong, and its fair—like others around the valley—has been strong. They will keep going, no matter what comes their way.

Click to read the first two parts of this series: “Through wars, floods, and COVID: the fair must go on” and “A year to take the fair online—and back off again.”

Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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