Perth County Fairs by Ellen Thomas, Stratford-Perth Archives

On Nov. 22, 1841, four pioneers met at the Shakespeare Inn in Stratford. That day, they wrote a letter to be distributed to the influential farmers of the district, affirming their conviction that “nothing would contribute more to the advantage of the settlement than the formation of an agricultural society.” They set a date and time for a meeting and had a turnout of 23 residents. On Nov. 27, 1841, the rules and regulations were set for the agricultural society representing “the Village of Stratford and the Townships of Downie, Ellice, North and South Easthope, Logan Fullarton and Blanshard.” The yearly subscription was set at 5 shillings.

In the early months of 1842, more than 100 subscribers had been secured. According to the Stratford Agricultural Society’s see (Glastonbury Crescent) history, “the first exhibition was held on Friday, Oct. 14, 1842, amid primitive surroundings and was voted a splendid success. It was held at the Shakespeare Inn.” Exhibits were placed inside the hotel and livestock pens were built on the street outside. The first classes for prize money included “cattle, sheep, pigs and best yoke of oxen.” Inside prize money was given for “solid of butter, homemade cheese, 10 yards of homemade cloth, wool to be grown and spun by exhibitor, woollen mitts, blankets, hooked rugs, potatoes, pumpkins, wheat and homemade farm implements.”

In 1941, the Beacon Herald interviewed the Honourable Nelson Monteith, who had served as the provincial minister of agriculture from 1905 to 1908. The year 1941 was the 100th anniversary of the formation of Stratford’s agricultural society, making this institution one of the earliest in Perth County. Note that 1941 was considered the anniversary of the fair and not 1942. It seems the anniversaries of most fairs were chosen based on the inception of their agricultural societies. Monteith had heard the accounts of the early days of the fair first hand and shared his memories.

“It was easy to picture the scene at one of the first fairs. … Livened up by the presence of ‘wandering merchant’s’ pink and white candy; cattle and horses were the main items on the show list. Judging was not on as scientific a plan as it is at present, and some of the exhibitors were not above trying to gain favour by treating the judges.

“The fair for the most part (was) county-wide. People from the north of the county and south, and for that matter from all directions came to the fair. They set out early in the morning driving horses and slogging through the chilly, often wet dawn to get to the show on time…”

The first Stratford fairgrounds were said to be located on the triangle of Downie, St. Patrick and George streets. However, they were mostly held on the street at the Shakespeare Inn and in the vicinity of where the library now stands. The triangle was not procured until 1858. The next location fronted Albert, Front and Brunswick streets, with the racetrack being located on a plot of land bordering Front, Brunswick, Douro and Queen streets. After several years, it was moved to Huron Street, near Forman, and then moved to Ontario Street, where Avalon Fabrics and Kroehler Field were located. In 1911, several sites were considered and, in 1914, the first permanent exhibition building was erected and named the Crystal Palace at the old fairgrounds on Britannia. The last year the fair was located at the old fairgrounds was 2011. Its current location is now at the Agriplex and Rotary Complex on McCarthy. Where will it be 100 years from now?

The photo above, taken in 1962, during the fair’s 121st anniversary, clearly shows the delight fairgoers had on the midway. The cutline read: “FUN AT THE FAIR – According to officials at the Stratford Fall Fair, a new record in attendance was established Tuesday afternoon, when thousands of Stratford and district children took advantage of the sunny weather and children’s day to attend the second day of the fair. Judging from the expressions on the faces of this group on the roller coaster, their hopes for fun at the fair were fulfilled.”