Remembering the best fair ever

  • Jul. 18, 2012 4:04 p.m.

Calgary had just staged an enormously successful Centennial Stampede. One hundred years ago, in early September 1912, Guy Weadick organized a summer extravaganza which, over the succeeding decades, has literally helped shape one of Canada’s largest cities.

The year 1912 was one of tremendous prosperity and new beginnings across Alberta. That was as true in Red Deer as it was in the thriving city of Calgary. Hence, it is not surprising that 10 days before the famous first Calgary Stampede, Red Deer enjoyed one of the best summer fairs and exhibitions in its history.

The 1912 fair was a fresh start for a community event that was already 20 years old. The Red Deer Fairs had been beset by a number of severe financial and legal problems. A newly reorganized Red Deer Agricultural Society was determined to get things back on track with a real ‘bang.’

One of the first steps taken by the new Agricultural Society was to secure the active support of the Town Council and Board of Trade. A successful request was made to Council to have three acres added to the west side of the existing fairgrounds to provide ample space for new stables and a midway.

A proposal was then placed before the local ratepayers to borrow a large sum of money for new buildings and other improvements. The voters gave their strong support in the subsequent special plebiscite.

Two 40 by 100-ft. livestock barns were erected. A new $3,000 exhibits building was also constructed with allowance on two sides for the addition of future wings. More than $1,000 was spent on repairs to the existing buildings and on general improvements to the fairgrounds.

Meanwhile, the prize list for exhibitors was extensively revised and expanded. The amount of special prizes was doubled. The Fair Board went down to the Calgary to line up attractions and to entice exhibitors. Arrangements were made with acrobatic troupes, Scottish bands and vaudeville shows. The Events Committee also organized horse races and professional baseball games.

As the summer progressed, the Fair Board was swept up with enthusiasm. Although the exhibition had been set for Aug. 21-23, they approached Town Council at the beginning of August for approval to build a new grandstand capable of seating up to 1,000 people. Despite the shortness of time and $4,000 cost, the aldermen agreed. Incredibly, the structure was completed in time for the fair.

On Aug. 21, 1912, the provincial minister of agriculture the Honorable Duncan Marshall, officially opened what was now called the ‘Central Alberta Exhibition.’

What followed was a tremendous success. Attendance soared to more than 5,000, almost twice the population of Red Deer at the time. A record 730 entries competed for the prize money. The new grandstand was packed during a lengthy parade of winning cattle and horses and the various entertainments. The expanded midway was a roaring success.

As one might expect, given how quickly the new Central Alberta Exhibition has been organized, there were some glitches. The Western Vaudeville Association failed to supply its contracted grandstand attractions after more than 1,000 tickets had been sold.

Some competitors complained that the improved prize list was still inadequate. Three carloads of stock had to be turned away because, even with the new barns, there was not enough accommodation.

Nevertheless, these frustrations paled next to the overall success of the Fair. The newly minted Central Alberta Exhibition had the best attendance, best competitions and best profitability of any fair in the history of Red Deer. The year of 1912 became the benchmark against which future fairs were measured.