A look back at the Red Deer Fair

Michael Dawe

Michael Dawe

Today marks the start of the annual Westerner Exposition. Because fairs and exhibitions generally suffer when it is wet and cold, it is hoped that the weather will continue to be better over the next few days than it has been over the past several weeks.

One year, when the weather caused enormous problems for the annual Red Deer Fair was 1927. Unfortunately, the fair board had already been facing a number of difficulties for several years. The post-First World War depression had hit hard. Government grants were slashed. Attendance plunged as people found even the 25 cents gate admission too expensive.

Gradually, the fair board began to rebuild the event. Expenses were kept to a minimum. However, care was taken not to reduce the prize money for the livestock exhibits by too much, as this would further endanger the federal grants.

Most of the concessions were run by volunteers or in partnership with local church groups. That caused problems one year when the Presbyterian Ladies Aid refused to sell any cola, tobacco or 2% beer in the main dining hall. Hence, arrangements had to be quickly made by the fair board for a separate concession booth for the controversial items.

A major setback occurred with the 1925 fair. A lot of rain fell during the exhibition. Ironically, the cost-conscious fair board had decided not to take out rain insurance, as the directors did not realize that the new August fair dates would have meant a significant reduction in premiums.

Costs were again kept to a minimum for the 1926 fair. However, the introduction of new low-cost attractions such as baseball games, football (soccer) matches and especially horse races, brought out the best crowds since the First World War. The 1926 fair made a significant profit.

Thus, the fair board approached the 1927 exhibition with some optimism. Contracts were signed for a much bigger midway. Arrangements were also made with Conklin and Garret Shows to provide 15 acts for the grandstand shows as well as 12 circus events in a large tented area.

Consideration was given to having major celebrations of the 60th anniversary of Confederation. However, after City council decided to have a lavish civic celebration on July 1, the idea of marking Canada’s Silver Jubilee at the fair was dropped.

As the summer progressed, Central Alberta was struck by severe weather. On July 8, 1927, a tornado hit Rocky Mountain House. Every building in town was either destroyed or badly damaged.

The generally warm, but wet weather continued. By the latter part of July, temperatures were reaching 31C. The annual Benalto Stampede was hit with two days of showers, but this was not unusual for that event. Hence, attendance did not seem to suffer much.

The Red Deer Fair opened on the evening of Monday, July 25, 1927. There had been some light showers earlier in the day, but by the time that the opening ceremonies started it was a warm and pleasant summer’s evening.

The next morning was sunny and warm. Large crowds began to flock to the fairgrounds to take in the attractions.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, one of the worst hailstorms in Red Deer’s history struck. The City was pounded by large-sized hail. Farmers, in a belt extending from Burnt Lake to the west and Willowdale in the east, saw their crops devastated. The Richards family, who had beautiful crop in the Horn Hill district south of Red Deer, reported that they had suffered a 100% loss.

Rain poured for the remainder of the fair. The local weather station recorded more than 30 mm of precipitation in 48 hours. By the time that the rain finally stopped, the fair was over.

Despite the seeming disaster, things did not turn out to be that bad. Because of the early strong attendance, the fair still managed to turn a small, but welcome profit of $700. The 1927 exhibition had not been “the biggest and best ever”. Nevertheless, the fair board was able to plan for a better fair next year.