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Picton fair was always an exciting school holiday

A great crowd at the grandstand to witness Premier Roblin's visit to the Picton Fair.

When I was a child, growing up on The Commons, Picton Fair was a highly anticipated event. Each fall, many of Prince Edward County’s elementary school pupils marched in the opening day parade. Practice sessions for the parade began, soon after our return to the classroom, in September. It was generally accepted that Mr. James Bird’s students would again win first prize, for he had been in the army and took marching very seriously.

The fair was exciting to us because it meant a school holiday. Classes were dismissed soon after lunch and the pupils of Mary Street School assembled for the march to Picton fairgrounds. When the parade ended we were ushered through the gates to receive free tickets for the midway rides from Picton Mayor Harvey McFarland.

In the 1950’s and ’60’s, Picton Fair was regarded one of the best on eastern Ontario. One of its biggest boosters was Gazette news editor Phil Dodds, who served as secretary of the fair board for nearly 20 years. Fifty years ago, the fair always took place during the third week of September. It was usually a two-day event headlined by entertainers such as Doc Williams, Tommy Common, and The Carleton Show Band.

The fair’s flower show was truly spectacular. There were often so many entries that it was necessary to display some of the houseplants and floral arrangements on the arena bleachers. There was also a large display of fruits and vegetables.

In the Crystal Palace, there were glass cases filled with home baking, displays of preserves and a food counter staffed by employees of the Picton IGA. In the centre of the Palace was a colourful mini-garden, created each year by local florist Ruby Lockyer Ward. A tradition of the fair, it was always greatly admired.

There was always an air of excitement at the fair. Midway barkers could be heard from the street as they urged fair-goers passing their booths to try their luck at games of chance. Loud calls of “Bingo” also echoed from the fairgrounds. Midways of fifty years ago were different from those of today. Many of the “carnies” were tattooed men in muscle shirts. Their demeanor could best have been described as “shifty”.. Often, the fair featured a tent with dancing girls who would gyrate, briefly, on stage while a barker loudly extolled their charms. There were also bearded ladies, fat ladies and men of Herculean strength, all of whom could be seen for only a quarter.

At the fairgrounds, during the 1950’s, was a small clapboard house occupied by the groundskeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Boyer. During the fair, hot meals prepared by a service group were served outside their home. The Boyer house was later moved or demolished. There was also a log cabin at the fairgrounds, which had been moved there as a place to display antiques during the fair. It was relocated to another site, by the Prince Edward County Historical Society in 1967, Canada’s centennial year.

Although Picton Fair continues to draw large crowds, it is no longer the colourful and exciting event that it was 30 years ago. Country and western music no longer plays over loudspeakers. Now, the fairgrounds is a silent place. Even the carnival barkers have gone. Midway workers are clean-cut and polite and the dancing girls have waltzed off. Farmers and enthusiastic 4-H competitors no longer hose down their cattle on a small concrete pad only a short distance from Main Street, Today, there is a new, well-appointed cow barn at the back of the fairgrounds, with greatly improved facilities for bathing bovine competitors.

The large canvas tent in which the Cherry Valley Bluebirds fried the world’s best donuts is long gone. For a time, the Bluebirds continued to serve farmers’s breakfasts, homemade pie and beverages from the Fruit Building adjacent to the Crystal Palace. Eventually stringent health regulations clipped their wings.

Picton Fair, as it was in its glory days, is now just a memory for those of my generation. Everything is cleaner, safer, and in full compliance with all applicable regulations. Gone are the harness races, the half-mile horse and pony races and the homemade foods that, theoretically, could have poisoned us, but never did. Lost, too, is the magic that once made the county fair one of the most exciting events of the year.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon

About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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  1. Gabrielle Holowacz says:

    Thanks for the trip back in time. I too remember being a pupil of Mr. Bird and marching practice. Those were the days!

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