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Fairgrounds heritage plan proposes revival of rare example of ag exhibition grounds

The Picton Fairgrounds in 2010 photographed by Steven Draper of Polepics.

By Sue Capon
A master plan presented to council Tuesday night to revive Picton’s fairgrounds comes with no price tags attached, nor final plans, but offers suggestions on how short, and long-term improvements could enhance its agricultural roots while offering expanded opportunities for recreation and entrepreneurs.

“It is important to remember the most distinctive aspect of the site: it is a rare, largely intact example of an agricultural exhibition ground,” said Dr. Carl Bray, of Bray Heritage, retained by the municipality with Branch Architecture and Letourneau Heritage Consulting, to prepare a master plan for the fairgrounds.

“There are almost no other examples left in North America and for this reason alone, it should be conserved. And perhaps more important, its rarity value is also what offers the most opportunities for its enhancement. Any initiatives requiring funding and time from municipal staff and volunteers will have this advantage.”

At the turn of the century harness races were held when weather allowed. The Prince Edward Agricultural Society continued to run them in the 1940s and early 50s until the County Centre was constructed infield. – Photo from the collection of Alan R. Capon

The Picton Driving Park Association (members who bred and raced trotting horses), founded in 1877, purchased George Johnson’s land (now the fairgrounds) having committed to build a grandstand, track and fence. The Prince Edward Agricultural Society purchased the grounds from the association in 1886.

The Old Boy’s Entrance building, closest to Main Street, was constructed in 1920 as a pedestrian entrance and ticket booth, and commemorates County residents who sacrificed their lives in The First World War. The Fruit Building was completed in 1912 to support events at the fair. – Photos from the Bray Heritage Report

The Crystal Palace, Fruit Building, Grandstand and Old Boys Memorial Entrance (a post-First World War memorial) – all added in the 1900s – are considered the four key structures.

The Crystal Palace was built in 1890 as the exhibition hall for the agricultural fair. Its design is from Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace built in 1851 in London, England for the Great Exhibition.

“The fairgrounds has cultural significance related to Prince Edward County’s agricultural, recreation and social history as well as architectural value related to its heritage buildings,” Bray notes in his report.

And while is has long been a key community asset connecting country with town, the site is considered to be under-used.

The master plan is the first step in a planning process. It emphasizes the fairgrounds’ importance, highlights its heritage and envisions the area to showcase agriculture and provide more recreation.

The fairgrounds was the site of several notable events, such as the visit to the fair of General Lord Aberdeen in 1896 – the first time a representative of royalty visited the Cuonty, named after Prince Edward, a member of the Royal family. In the photo above, Manitoba Premier Raymond Roblin visited in 1905. Also, Governor General Lord Byng visited in 1921; First World War Flying Ace Billy Bishop in 1944 and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1971. Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald was once secretary of the Prince Edward Agricultural Society. – Photo from the Alan R Capon collection

Dedicated funds from annual County budgets, and other funding sources would be necessary to repair and update the buildings to current building codes, and re-configure the property for best uses.

Bray also notes there needs to be a way to ensure initial enthusiasm to move forward does not dissolve into frustration and disappointment.

“A process is needed that offers optimum conditions for success.”


Preliminary recommendations:
– creating “a cultural precinct” around the four main heritage structures, establishing funding streams for ongoing maintenance and restoration;

– consider a cost-recovery business plan and pursuing partnerships.

Former ticket booth and fence, photographed from Main Street. – PEC Archives photo

– Restoration of the ticket booth and entrance, wall and fence and reconstruction of the Old Boys Dining Hall as an interpretation centre.

– Repurpose land to include community gardens, greenhouses, farmers’ markets

– Existing cattle barn and existing show ring to be used for shows and sales.

– More varied and frequent use of the grandstand for musical events, and if renewed interest in harness racing, the existing track could be upgraded and its circuit restored, with minor changes to the skateboard park area.

– Convert the southern of the two baseball diamonds into a multi-use sports space; recreation for families and youth; adding new facilities to the north end; linking the fairgrounds to walking trails and re-locating the quonset next to the skate park.

The report also suggests that if the County can pursue opportunity to building housing on the public property next to the HUB Child and Family Centre, residents there and adjacent neighbourhoods “can become part-time stewards” of the fairgrounds.

Bray recommends the organization of interested stakeholders, philanthropists and partnerships and a framework for future action.

“And in all actions to protect and enhance the fairgrounds, the aim should be to set modest goals initially and declare success often,” the report states, noting many issues and areas of consensus can only be resolved through further assessment and studies beyond the scope of this master plan.

“The future of the fairgrounds should be one that rekindles interest in farm life, showcasing its many aspects. Recreational uses should be accommodated and expanded, where possible, but they should not dominate.” The two themes, he told council, can compliment each other.

Picton Fair, 1904. – Photo PEC Archives

Picton fairgrounds and race track aerial view in 1987 photographed by Lloyd Thompson in the book Picton Remembered, by Thompson and Alan R. Capon

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  1. angela says:

    Ed’s barn, named for the late Ed Fraser, began as MacDonald’s farm, located under the grandstand, with Ed as “Old MacDonald”. After his death it became Ed’s Place and apparently is now is Ed’s Barn. Ed deserves to be remembered and the barn housing the poultry and livestock display is a fitting memorial.

  2. Don Montgomery says:

    Re. “the Quonset hut building”

    It is actually called “Ed’s Barn” and named so
    in recognition of a county guy. The variety of rabbits, hens, roosters, ducks, sow and piglets, etc., is probably one of the most interesting and ‘agricultural’ areas of the fair.
    “Ed’s Barn” should be recognized and supported, not tossed aside, disposed of.

  3. angela says:

    The decline in Picton fair relates in part to what has happened to many small fairs in Ontario. Times change and little country fairs seem pretty unsophisticated by today’s standards. However,today’s Picton fair relies too much on repeating the same old, same old, instead of searching for new attractions. Given the high level of tourism in the county it should be possible to put on a fair that would become a major draw in the fall. So many new people here with amazing talents. The fairgrounds has unique exhibit buildings and lots of history, advantages lacking in many other communities. All the ingredients for a great fair are there.

  4. SM says:

    The Plan presented attempts to reconcile historical uses with current recreational needs. The Plan recognizes the significance of the heritage structures to the community and the historical significance of the fairgrounds itself. The Plan contains suggestions designed to accommodate use as a rural fair with improvements for community recreation.
    One person’s comments set out on this website lament on the diminished character of the fair over the years. Perhaps what those comments reveal is a change in the character of rural and farm life. The report behind the Plan remarks on the historical significance of the fair as an opportunity for rural folks to experience urban life in a controlled setting. Lets face it, with internet, cell phones, satellite tv and the like, is there really an urban / rural divide?
    I see the consultant’s report more as a tool to be used to preserve some important community heritage structures and an important heritage space while making it more relevant for use today.

  5. old local says:

    Seeing pics of the track reminds me of the snowmobile races of the early 70’s. TNT’s, Polaris, Rupp Nitro’s,
    Skiroule RTX’s, Allouette’s . Fond memories of days gone by.

  6. angela says:

    I remember earlier days of the fair. I know times have changed but surely it is obvious that Picton fair could use a shot in the arm. Having the same old events year after year is not helping. There is not much point in volunteering if the majority are pleased with the status quo. A lot of people may enjoy the fair but a lot remark on how much it has gone down hill too. Instead of so many empty spaces in the exhibit buildings surely it would be better to invite some community hobby groups to put in interesting displays at no charge. There used to be square dancers performing in front of the Curling Club and a vocalist who entertained there, too. With all the musical talent in the county today surely there could be better entertainment and we do have Scottish dancers and a school of dance.

  7. Susan says:

    A lot of folks work hard and a lot enjoy the Fair. If one wants better I am sure volunteers are welcome,

  8. angela says:

    The days of great Picton fairs are over. What we have now is an uninspired mini-version of what it used to be. Can no one think of better entertainment that the perennial tractor pull or the phony wrestling matches? The Crystal Palace was empty in 2019. Some musical event did take place there I believe but no exhibits. The arena has a lot of boring commercial displays. Only the fruit and flower section saves it from being barely worth a glance. County fairs are dying but surely with a little ingenuity Picton Fair could recapture some of its earlier excitement.

  9. Hedy says:

    I feel our Fairgrounds is a gem in the community and does warrant some updating/reviving to give it the glory it deserves. The proposal has merit, and surely some, if not all, recommended updates could be implemented. We have the potential here for a great Fair that draws folk from far and wide. (pending reprieve from the pandemic). Anyone who reads the story/history of John Paxton’s Crystal Palace will be inspired to maintain Picton’s own example of a Crystal Palace.

  10. Michelle says:

    People should relax, this isn’t happening. Wonder what that study cost us?

  11. angela says:

    Renewed interest in harness racing at Picton fairgrounds is not likely. In 2012 the end for slots-at-racetracks program was announced by the Liberal government. That was the death knell for small tracks.

  12. Administrator says:

    Due to numerous questions, and heavy social media sharing related to the skate park after last night’s presentation to council, to clarify, there is no recommendation in the Bray Heritage Report to remove the skatepark. It states that if there is renewed interest in harness racing, the existing track could be upgraded and its circuit restored, with minor changes to the skateboard park area.

    There was also no agreement by council to take action on the plan – more studies and public consultation would be necessary – and it was received for “information only”.

    Slide show presentation wording seen at council’s meeting that the “Skate Park and building are intrusive” was shared under “Themes from Comments” from groups and individuals who had participated in surveys.

    The wording in the full report, under actions the could be considered related to the racetrack and skatepark, is as follows:

    “Repair and restore the racetrack. Level the surface to prevent ponding. Restore the original profile and footprint by removing the building that is associated with the Skate Park and by removing the few portions of the Skate Park that overlap the track. Install protective fencing between the Skate Park and racetrack.

    As part of a comprehensive re-design of this area, consider relocating the Quonset hut building to the north end of the property to serve as a support structure for the fair as well as the gardening and demonstration activities proposed there. Consider also moving the washroom building to the former location of the Quonset hut to provide washrooms associated with the play areas.”

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