Remembering the tradition of local fairs

The annual Alberta Culture Days are now upon us. This year, they run from Sept. 25th to 27th and provide a chance to celebrate, and learn more about, Alberta’s vibrant arts and cultural scene.

More than 100 years ago, there was another annual celebration in virtually every community that included a sizeable arts, culture and entertainment component.

That was the annual fall fair.

The first fall fair in Red Deer was held on Oct. 11th, 1892. It was held at the Wilkins Block, a two-storey building on Ross Street.

The hall on the upper floor serves as the exhibits room. Livestock were shown on the adjoining grounds.

As an agricultural fair, there was a strong emphasis on farm and garden products.

There were benches displaying wheat, rye, peas, barley and oats. There were also tables displaying all kinds of garden produce.

Down the centre, there were all kinds of homemade bread, butter, cheeses, preserves, jams, jellies and native fruit wines.

There were, however, extensive displays of what today are considered crafts – crochets, fancy cushions, counterpane, quilts and crewel work.

There were hand-drawn maps done by the local children as well as some paintings by local amateur artists.

The evening was capped with a large harvest supper on the south side of Ross Street.

The supper was followed by the singing of songs, instrumental music and humorous ‘Scotch’ readings.

The first fair was such a success that the second one, in 1893, was held in the C.P.R. roundhouse as that building provided more space.

The roundhouse continued to be the location of the fall fair for the next several years. In addition, a race track was constructed on the open land west of the railroad tracks.

Horse racing subsequently became a main feature of the fair, along with a lot of unofficial betting.

By 1901, the same year that Red Deer was incorporated as a town, the fair had grown to a two-day event.

Moreover, displays of oil paintings by local artists became a noted part of the exhibits of creative and domestic arts.

In 1902, the annual fair had become sufficiently large that fairgrounds were purchased on the southeastern edge of the Town, next to Waskasoo Creek.

This site became the location of the annual Red Deer Fair for the next 80 years. It was known for a considerable length of time as Alexandra Park, so named in honour of King Edward VII’s queen and consort, Queen Alexandra.

Various improvements were soon made to Alexandra Park.

A quality racetrack was built. A grandstand was erected. A dedicated exhibits building was constructed to house the agricultural, commercial, domestic and art exhibits.

The new Red Deer Citizens’ Band, a forerunner of today’s Red Deer Royals, provided music. The Alexandra Hotel on Ross Street (later known as the Park Hotel) was the scene of evening entertainments and dances.

By 1904, however, the expenditures on the new grounds had created a significant debt problem for the Agricultural Society.

One unique fundraising idea adopted by the Society’s Board was to ask all the candidates in the 1904 Federal election to donate $10 each to the fair.

By 1906, the Agricultural Society became overwhelmed by its financial and organizational difficulties.

Consequently, the Society was replaced by the Red Deer Exhibition Association, a joint stock company.

However, this change brought a lot of dissent and in-fighting both in the organization and the community as a whole.

In 1907, an attempt was made to hold both a summer and fall fair. Both were a disaster. A fall fair was never held in the community again.

Finally in 1911, the Town of Red Deer took ownership of the fairgrounds.

The Red Deer Exhibition Association was dissolved. A new Red Deer Agricultural Society was created, with an annual summer fair as its main focus.