150 Years of the Caledonia Fair: it’s the people who make it all happen

150 Years of the Caledonia Fair: it’s the people who make it all happen

By Sheila Phibbs

The Haldimand Press

CALEDONIA—In 1873, the Caledonia Agricultural and Arts Society had a vision of providing farmers an opportunity to showcase the products of their labour – fruits, vegetables, grains, silage, and livestock – and a place for the people of Haldimand to gather. It was the Caledonia Fair. After 150 years, the fair continues to showcase the best of Haldimand. Agriculture remains at its roots and at its heart, the people.

From the beginning, the volunteers have been willing to invest in the fair’s success. The first fair was a one-day event on Edinburgh Square. Three years later, the present fairgrounds were purchased; that year’s fair was a two-day event that had so much rain the Society had to take out a loan to pay prizes. 

CALEDONIA—Horse races are one event no longer held at the Caledonia Fair. However, the level of fun and excitement at the fair has only grown thanks to the organizers.
CALEDONIA—Horse races are one event no longer held at the Caledonia Fair. However, the level of fun and excitement at the fair has only grown thanks to the organizers.

That setback did not deter the Society and improvements were made in the ensuing decades. From planting trees to building a race track (because “fast horses” were a major attraction), to installing necessary infrastructure and buildings, the Society invested the time and resources that allowed the fair to grow.

Growth not only benefitted the Caledonia Fair but the community; throughout its history the fairgrounds have been available for use by various groups for activities and events, and they served as a public green space. To this day, community partnerships are integral to the Caledonia Fairgrounds, which operates as a year-round facility.

There are many images that conjure memories for generations of fairgoers. Livestock shows, exhibit hall displays, the midway, competitions, and special events remain highlights, but the horse races, grandstands, the tunnel under the race track, and the “Old Arena” represent the change that underlies the fair’s progress.

What began as a board of 32 men welcomed its first female directors in 1893. The name eventually became the Caledonia Agricultural Society. The original grandstands were replaced, horse racing was discontinued, and the tunnel filled in. Most recently, the renovation of the Old Arena gave way to the Riverside Exhibition Centre (REC).

What has not changed is the dedication and commitment of the people. Fair Manager Ian Thompson says, “So many men and women have invested time, talent, and treasure into the Caledonia Fair and all of their contributions, large or small, have contributed to creating the amazing experience which residents of Caledonia, Haldimand County, and the other communities of southern Ontario have come to know and enjoy each autumn at the fair.”

Families such as the Douglases, Wicketts, and Pearts have been there for generations. Don Douglas shares that his family has over 120 years with the fair. He was Ag Society President in 1985-86, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. His grandmother, mother, and sister were all Homecraft Presidents and his wife, Lois, held that position in 1992-93.

Douglas is an Honorary Life Member and 2022 marks his 60th year with the board. Highlights of those decades include the new grandstand in 1962, the new arena in 1971, and the new REC in 2020-21. He and Lois are proud that their daughters and grandchildren are carrying on the family tradition as directors and junior members, respectively.

Douglas acknowledges Reg Hudspeth, who served as Fair Secretary from 1946 to 1977. He says, “He made sure everyone in the fair network knew where Caledonia was.” 

Douglas adds, “The purpose of the fair is to educate and entertain both rural and urban communities in the same setting while maintaining an agricultural footprint. The dedication and efforts of fair members, volunteers, and repeat visitors have enabled our fair to operate and continue for 150 years.”

The Caledonia Fair was a family tradition for Vickie Peart who says, “Since my parents were on the Fair Board, as a family we attended the fair every day…. Other than school, we really did not get off the farm that much so the fair was one of the highlights of the year.” 

Peart exhibited when she was young and started working in the fair office with her dad, Emerson, when she was 22.

Peart was Fair Manager for 43 years and says, “One of my favourite things … was listening to the stories of the community. A small child would come into the office with a drawing of a pumpkin and hand it to me with immense pride…. A senior citizen who remembered winning first prize in printing in 1946! It was a real privilege for me to be the keeper of these memories.”

 

Marriage brought Linda Fisher to Caledonia from Hamilton. She became involved in the fair through some of the women she had gotten to know. She says, “I was used to a close-knit family. The fair provided that closeness and respect for each other.” 

Fisher was Homecraft President in 1994-95 and has the distinction of being the first female President of the Caledonia Ag Society in 2001-02. She admits to feeling anxious as the first woman in the role, but it didn’t stop her from helping on big projects like building fences. She recalls, “The guys treated me as an equal.”

Fisher worked alongside the late Don Carlin and other members to start The Berry Patch. She shares, “I like to feed people.” She now helps provide lunch for the volunteers during the week of the fair. Fisher says, “You get closer and closer to the people as you get involved. They’re a darned good group of people.”

Jodie Easson learned that as Caledonia Fair Queen in 1987. She grew up attending the fair each year and later participated through 4-H, Junior Farmers, and as Dairy Princess. She says, “As Fair Queen I spent the whole weekend at the fair and worked with a lot of different committees…. I liked everybody and what they were doing.”

When the Entertainment Committee introduced the High School Challenge in 1988, Easson was asked the join the committee, becoming the ‘voice’ of the event. Over time she MC’d more events and says, “I liked being there. I started taking vacation at fair time…. As I got more involved I had more ideas and got on more committees.”

Easson appreciates the diversity of the Ag Society saying, “Our organization needs people of every skill set in order to thrive. You can find a place to excel and use your talents. We do have our challenges but when you have a group coming from so many different directions and perspectives … you have a wider range of solutions…. We put the fair and Ag Society ahead of ourselves.”

That mindset has helped the Caledonia Fair always move forward. Perhaps what is most impressive is what the Society has overcome to achieve this milestone. The fair has survived two world wars, the depression, floods, fires, vandalism, two global pandemics (Spanish Flu and Covid-19), and not to mention all the rain. Peart describes the volunteers as “steadfast, dutiful, hardworking, forward thinking. I think these characteristics are those of the stewards of the Caledonia Agricultural Society for the past 150 years.”

Forward thinking combined with community support has seen the evolution of the Caledonia Fair. This year’s edition features more entertainment and food vendors, an anniversary parade, heritage games, three days of Meet Your Local Farmer, vendors outside and on the second level of the REC, the return of Touch a Truck and Kids Zone, and so much more. 

Most importantly, Thompson says, “The fair continues to be a place where people come together. I’m certain that the fair will still be going strong 150 years from now.” 

His confidence is shared by Douglas who says, “The fact that the fair is so engrained in the fibre of so many families who volunteer or attend the fair every year keeps the fair tradition flourishing going forward.”

For a complete history of the fair, schedule, and more visit caledoniafair.ca.