Remembering the 1937 Red Deer Fair

Today marks the start of the 124th annual Westerner Exposition. As usual, our major summer celebration was kicked off with the annual Westerner parade through downtown Red Deer.

The day also provides an opportunity to reflect back on some of the previous fairs and exhibitions.

One of the most successful annual fairs in our community’s history was the one that was held in July 1937.

At the start of the year, there were a great many challenges to staging a profitable event.

The economy was mired in the midst of the Great Depression.

Moreover, while it had seemed that things had been slowly getting better, a sharp new downturn set in as the year progressed. Unemployment jumped. Incomes slid. Bankruptcies soared once more.

Moreover, the great drought, which had been plaguing the Canadian prairies throughout the 1930s, returned with a vengeance.

A heat wave in July 1936 set records across Canada. The prospects for the summer of 1937 did not look much better.

The new Social Credit government essentially went bankrupt in 1936 when it defaulted on millions of dollars of provincial government bonds.

The federal government also began a new round of austerity and scrubbed its grants for regional exhibitions.

The Red Deer Agricultural Society, which staged the annual fair, took several measures to remain solvent.

While the 1936 Fair had earned a small profit, the government default on its bonds had hit the Society’s cash reserves hard.

Consequently, several planned attractions had to be cancelled.

A decision was made to cut the midway, with the Vegreville Fair agreeing to pick up the part that Red Deer felt it could no longer handle. While harnessing racing had been a popular, although not particularly profitable attraction, the Fair Board decided to cancel it.

Nevertheless, the Fair Board knew it needed some solid attractions if it was going to attract a reasonable attendance. Hence, the annual Red Deer Derby horse races remained. The Derby was supplemented with pony, democrat, ‘Indian’ and chariot races, which were not only popular, but also relatively inexpensive to stage.

While the midway had been cut back, a number of popular rides were still booked. They included the ever-popular twin Ferris wheel and merry-go-round as well as a twin rocket ride, Loop-A-Lane, Tilt-A-Whirl, Ride-e-o and a new ride called the Octopus. The midway also provided an ‘autodrome’ of kiddie car rides on a sort of ‘speedway’.

An animal circus was booked.

It included shows with dogs, ponies, monkeys and bears. Nero, a performing but quite aged lion was also featured.

The big investment was made in the annual grandstand show. One of the main acts was Atenos, a European acrobatic troupe.

Another big attraction was the Sparklets, a group of attractive young women who both danced and sang popular songs.

Pearl Fern and Co., a hillbilly band, was yet another featured act. In order to bring in local talent, the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals) was booked to provide several performances during the Fair.

Just before the start of the Fair on July 22nd, a wave of wet weather hit Central Alberta. Although the visit of the Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, on July 12th, was severely curtailed by the heavy rains, to many it looked like the great drought was finally lifting. Fortunately for the Exhibition’s organizers, the skies cleared and sunny weather returned literally on the morning of the opening of the Fair.

The three-day fair was a smashing success. The largest crowds in recent memory turned out. The grandstand shows were a big hit. The Red Deer Derby made money. Overall, the Fair Board earned a modest, but very welcome profit.