One of the most popular annual events in many communities across western Canada is the annual summer fair/exhibition. This is true in Red Deer with the Westerner Exposition.
However, in the early days, the fairs and exhibitions were almost always held in the fall and not in the summer.
It is not hard to understand why fall was the preferred time for major community celebrations. The economies were generally agriculturally-based.
Fairs and exhibitions were a time to showcase the agricultural potential of the area and to allow local farmers to display the various grains, produce and livestock they had raised.
The best time to show that produce and livestock was at harvest.
The first fair in Central Alberta was held in Innisfail on Oct. 6th, 1892. Five days later, on Oct. 11th, the first Red Deer Fair was held in the Wilkins Block, a two-storey frame building on the north side of Ross Street, a short distance west of Gaetz Avenue.
The hall on the upper floor of the Wilkins Block served as the exhibits area. The room was packed with the entries of vegetables and grains, with a long table in the middle holding displays of bread, butter, cheese, preserves, jams and native fruit wines.
There were also tables of handicrafts such as crochet work, quilts and rugs as well as examples of local leatherwork such as harnesses, saddles and bridles.
The livestock were shown on the vacant lots adjacent to the building. The entries included cattle (mainly Shorthorns), riding and heavy draft horses, oxen, hogs (mainly Berkshires), chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese.
The weather remained perfect.
The event was capped with a large harvest home supper, served on long tables and benches set up on a large open lot on the south side of Ross Street. The hearty meal was followed by music and other entertainments in the Methodist Church on Blowers (51st) St.
The first fair was such a success that fall fairs were held every year afterwards.
The local C.P.R. roundhouse replaced the Wilkins Block as the exhibition facility. Soon horse racing was added as an attraction with the track being created on the open land west of the railway tracks.
Unfortunately, fall weather sometimes played havoc with the annual fair. In 1900, 5cm (2 inches) of snow fell on Aug. 22nd. On Sept. 23rd and 24th, there was such a severe blizzard that a train got struck in snowdrift. Not surprisingly, the annual fall fair on Oct. 4th turned out to be little more than a horse racing event.
Despite the challenges with the weather, overall, the Red Deer fall fairs continued to grow. In 1902, fairgrounds were purchased on the southeast side of what is now downtown Red Deer. The site was soon expanded and named Alexandra Park, in honour of King Edward VII’s queen and consort.
By 1906, a decision was made to revamp the Agricultural Society, which had been organizing the annual fall fairs. It was replaced by the Red Deer Exhibition Association, a non-profit joint-stock company.
Following the example of Innisfail, which was now holding both summer and fall fairs, the new Red Deer Exhibition Association decided to do the same.
Unfortunately, the first summer fair in 1907 was dogged by rainy weather. A heavy snowstorm in September broke the limbs on many trees. Hence the quality of the exhibits at the fall fair in October was poor, as was attendance.
In 1908, only a summer fair was held, with mediocre success, despite being opened with a grand parade down Ross Street. In 1909, the fair was held on Sept. 30th and Oct. 1st and it lost money.
The Exhibition Association fell into severe financial difficulties. A new Agricultural Society was eventually created to replace the Association. Major improvements were subsequently made to the fairgrounds with significant financial assistance from the Town Council.
The revitalized Red Deer Fair was held on Aug. 21st and 22nd, 1912.
It was a smashing success. No attempt was ever made to have another fall fair in Red Deer.