Through wars, floods, and COVID: the fair must go on

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 one of a three-part series.

Photo: A young girl with her calf attends the 1943 Chilliwack Fair. 📷 Don Coltman/Public Domain (via Vancouver Archives)

A mother hen and her brood strut across the barn, while 4H club members brush and polish their calves’ rumps. Tractors glitter like coloured glass, and the sound of cheers float across the field from a crowd of spectators. Inside the hall, cans of jelly sparkle next to long lines of pies and cakes.

I could be recounting my visit to the Agassiz Fall Fair two years ago. Or I could be sharing the 1953 fair experience of writer Eileen Cross in her article for the local dairy magazine Butter Fat. The essence of the Fraser Valley’s fairs transcends time and obstacles to bring us together through agriculture and community.

Let’s go back in time. The first fair in the Fraser Valley started in 1873—or at least it tried to. Chilliwack residents had formed an agricultural association that spring, but couldn’t formally incorporate until the following year because of provincial bureaucracy. That burgeoning fair faced its share of hardships: the flood of June 1894 submerged most of Chilliwack, devastating crops. Only one month later, the fair executive met to decide whether the show should go on. It was a resounding yes.

Soon other fairs would join Chilliwack: Agassiz in 1901, Abbotsford in 1909, Aldergrove in 1912. By the start of World War I there would be at least six fairs in the Fraser Valley alone, as well as larger events in New Westminster and Vancouver.

Despite the Great War raging overseas, the Fraser Valley’s residents continued to rally to celebrate agriculture. But in 1917, some debated whether fairs should continue. “We can do without the fairs until after the war,” an article in the Abbotsford Post declared. “No one from a distance comes to see them, and at home we all know what we can raise.” Obviously, the residents of the Fraser Valley didn’t take that argument to heart: fair prize lists were published as front page news, and residents continued to travel to show off their cattle, pigs, sheep, and produce.

Four children stand at a counter under a tree as an older man serves drinks to a crowd. Image from a 1920s rural fair.

Photo by: Children and adults at an unidentified “rural fair” in the early 1920s. 📸 Erwin R. Gordon/Public Domain (via Vancouver Archives)

The question would be revisited throughout the years: should the fair continue? In 1928, Chilliwack volunteers wondered if it was even worth the effort because of low attendance. Others were appalled by the suggestion; volunteers “buckled on the harness again” and began planning that year’s fair. “A successful fair does not come out of the sky,” the Chilliwack Progress reported on the front page of the paper that August. It needed community: not only the farming community, but businesses and residents as well.

In the following decades, the question would evolve into how can the fair continue? When provincial funding for smaller fairs dried up, several Abbotsford-area fairs amalgamated. World War II arrived and some fairs paused their events. But not Chilliwack.

Throughout the war, the Chilliwack Fair would exhibit “women’s work” like knitting and sewing— but instead of quilts and baby dresses, it featured handmade hospital supplies and clothing for the men fighting overseas. In 1942, black-out restrictions halted evening fair festivities. The following year, a Red Cross booth told families how to get in touch with prisoners of war in Europe.

Three women examine canned goods at the 1946 Mission Fair.

Photo: Three women examine prize-winning canned goods at the 1946 Mission Fair. 📸 Don Coltman/Public Domain (via Vancouver Archives)

In the years to come, Fraser Valley fairs would host baby shows, dances, milking competitions, corn husking contests, concert bands, and Ferris wheels. Indigenous people brought beadwork, carving, and leathercraft to showcase for prizes. Spectators watched hard-fought lacrosse games. Livestock exhibitors would travel from across the valley, and even from the United States, to win accolades for their animals. As communities grew and changed, so did the events, as they hosted motocross riders and demolition derbies.

New challenges would emerge in the 21st century. The closure of the Fat Pig Saloon in 2010 helped make the Abbotsford AgriFair more family-friendly, but also put its future in jeopardy when revenue declined. In 2016, the AgriFair cancelled its rodeo in an attempt to save money, and the event hasn’t been back since. (Fair funds finally moved into the black as a result.)

The Fraser Valley’s local fairs have survived wars, floods, and funding cuts. They’ve evolved from simple country affairs to elaborate local festivals. But could they survive a pandemic? Fair managers across the valley were determined that they would.

“We’ve never been cancelled, not once,” Cathy Oss, president of the Chilliwack Fair, said. She wasn’t about to let 2020 be the first time.

Click to read part two and three of this series: “A year to take the fair online—and back off again” and “One day at the fair.”

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