Another Westerner Exposition (Red Deer Fair) is now underway. One of the most memorable of the annual exhibitions to take place in our community over the decades was the one staged 100 years ago in 1918. It featured the first airplane landing in Red Deer’s history.
The year had been a very challenging one. The horrific First World War was now in its fourth year. The Federal Government cancelled its annual grant, thereby creating a major financial crunch. The Western Canada Fairs Association was reorganized. Red Deer was reclassified as a Class B Exhibition, with fair dates between Lethbridge and Camrose, instead of Calgary and Edmonton.
The discouraged Red Deer Fair directors seriously considered the cancellation of the annual exhibition. However, they decided to press ahead and do the best they could under the circumstances.
Contracts were signed with a twelve-show midway. Despite money being very tight, the prize list was boosted for the agricultural exhibitors. Lectures were lined up on such topics as “domestic science”, household hygiene, milk testing and farm tractors. A group of returned veterans were persuaded to stage a “realistic” re-enactment of trench warfare.
Most importantly, arrangements were made to have Katherine Stinson, a dynamic young American aviatrix, make a landing of her OX Curtiss bi-plane on the infield in front of the grandstand.
Katherine Stinson had made an appearance at the 1917 Edmonton Exhibition. The event had not gone well. Stinson was dogged by engine troubles and had crashed one of her two planes. She therefore vowed to return to Alberta in 1918 to “atone for the unsatisfactory performances”.
Stinson appeared on the afternoon of July 9, 1918 at the Calgary Stampede. She was given a sack of mail by the local postal authorities to transport up to Edmonton as the first delivery of airmail in Alberta’s history.
The trip attracted enormous public interest. All along the route, thousands stared skywards, hoping to catch a glimpse of the plane. Telephone and telegraph wires were jammed as reports of the flight’s progress were passed along. A huge crowd greeted Stinson’s arrival at the Edmonton Exhibition grounds at 8 p.m. that evening.
Consequently, there was phenomenal public interest in a second flight by Stinson, this time between the Red Deer and Camrose Fairs, at the end of the month.
On July 31st, Stinson landed her biplane in front of the Red Deer Fair’s grandstand to a thunderous reception. More than 7,500 people, nearly three times the population of the City, turned out to witness the feat.
The flight was not without incident. When Stinson took off to make aeronautical demonstrations for the crowd, she had a great deal of difficulty getting airborne due to the hot dry summer’s air. The plane barely cleared the power lines and spruce trees on the north end of the fairgrounds in Parkvale.
Nevertheless, the plucky pilot managed a flawless return landing on the infield. Stinson was then escorted to the stage in front of the grandstand. She was presented with a large bouquet of sweet peas by the City Commissioner’s daughter, Nancy Stephenson. Various dignitaries then made lengthy speeches of welcome and congratulations.
The next day, Aug. 1st, Stinson made her departure. Because of the challenges of the preceding day, she took off from an unobstructed field in what is now Grandview. She was handed a large bag of mail which she then transported to Camrose.
Overall, the Fair was a huge success. The local newspapers declared it to be a real “hummer”. With the record breaking attendance, the Fair Board recorded a sizeable surplus. The Federal Government decided to restore the annual grant. The Western Canada Fairs Association agreed to give Red Deer more advantageous dates, immediately after the Edmonton Exhibition, in 1919.
As part of the plans for the next year’s Fair, a contract was signed with Lieutenant George Gorman to provide two days of aerial displays and Red Deer’s first passenger rides.