Phyllis Thompson officially joined the Listowel Agricultural Society (LAS) in 1955, but her memories of the fair reach back decades before that.
As a child in the 1930s, she recalls students and teachers marching in the parades wearing little cardboard hats they made with the name of their school on them.
“Sometimes they would have sashes on them made out of crepe paper,” she said. “They marched down through the town and then each school was introduced in front of the grandstand and then away they went to the fair.”
Thompson recalls that it wasn’t the grandstand people pack themselves onto these days while watching demolition derbies and other events. The historic grandstand of her youth was built in 1933 but had to be replaced after it was burnt to the ground on Oct. 6, 2003. Although that fire was believed to be a case of arson, no arrests were ever made.
Thompson fondly recalls the crowds gathering on the old grandstand when the fair was punctuated with hourly horse races.
“Every hour, on the hour, they would clear the track and have a heat – there would be six or seven horses in it… whether they had betting privileges, I don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t remember that.”
Back in the 1930s, the big attraction for the kids at the fair was the midway.
“They didn’t give a hoot whether there was animals or horses on the track,” said Thompson. “That didn’t matter to them. A lot of them were from a farm and they knew all about that anyway so it was the midway that took the children there. I think it still is today. There is a lot of children who go to that midway. I remember they didn’t have all these (stuffed animals) that you could win by throwing things, but the Ferris wheel and little cars you could drive around… those were the main things then.”
The women looked after everything inside the building – the crafts and exhibits – and the men looked after everything outside, the midway and all the animals.
“They looked after that but then in the ‘40s 4-H started up,” said Thompson. “They had to have an Achievement Day at the end of their summer looking after their animal – calf or horse or sheep – and they had it at the fair. They would be judged at the fair.”
Although the Listowel Junior Farmers first formed in the early 1920s, they had a resurgence which began in December 1949.
“In the 50s they started joining to help the LAS,” said Thompson. “I guess the men got after them to come and help. That was a big boon for the Society because they were young and able.”
Most of the LAS members running the fair were farmers with chores to do before and after working all day at the fair.
“It was an exhausting time for the men to run the fair,” she said. “It’s the same today, a lot of them are farmers that run it but they have their farms to run also.”
Thompson wasn’t officially involved as a LAS member until 1955, but she did help out at the fair in 1954, shortly after marrying her husband, Mac.
“They asked if I would be a judge for the school work because I was a teacher,” she said. “The next year they asked if I would help judge again because they always tried to have judges that didn’t know the pupils and I wasn’t from Listowel. I didn’t know any of the names on the writing or artwork. I was from Palmerston.”
Thompson and her husband decided they would join the LAS and she remained a member for 44 years. In 1999, she had to quit for health reasons.
“It got to where I couldn’t get around without a cane or a walker and you can’t cater to things and do all that work so I had to quit,” said Thompson. “That was a long time to be going but it was worth it.”
After the fair got rained out a few times, the 1970s brought the debate about whether it should continue to be a September event.
“They decided that something had to be done, they weren’t making any money giving out prizes because all the animals were there but the people wouldn’t come because the grounds were covered in water,” said Thompson.
When the motion to change the fair to July was first raised in 1973 it was defeated.
“Right away the flower committee said we can’t have that, we wouldn’t get any flowers,” she said. “Another committee said, ‘what would we put in the southwest corner of the building because there will be no hay, there will be no corn, there will be no vegetables and no fruits – in July you would have radishes and lettuce.’”
At the annual meeting in 1977, it was decided they would give a summer fair a chance.
“They decided to go to July and they have never looked back – they’ve had good days,” said Thompson.
She conceded that they’ve still had to deal with rain a few times since the change but for the most part, it’s the heat that is the big issue in July.
“We had to do something,” said Thompson. “The building was full of exhibits that would come in and you couldn’t expect people to come to the fair to see them because it just wasn’t good weather.”
A few years before the switch from fall to summer, the school board approached LAS and said it would cancel school for the Friday if the fair would include some educational programming for students.
“They wanted kids at the fair to help out the midway,” she said. “If the kids come, the parents come.”
So there were two LAS members put in charge of this educational endeavour, Aileen Bender and Thompson.
“We said we would do it for a year – I think we did it for about two or three years, but anyways, we were just exhausted when the day was over,” she said.
There were four or five stations manned by local people who would teach the kids about agriculture-related topics and answer questions.
“Then they were sent out with a piece of paper and about 15 or so questions and they had to find out the answers,” said Thompson. “They could go all over the fair, talk to people and look at things.”
It was essentially a scavenger hunt for knowledge. The educational program went for a few years but ended when the fair moved to July.
“It was no good then because the kids were not in school,” she said.
When Vince Judge became LAS president in 1989, it was suggested that the men and women merge into a single LAS.
“I remember them talking about it and the women – oh they didn’t know whether they wanted to merge or not,” said Thompson. “The Ontario Agricultural Society was encouraging them to be as one group – women and men. It was the Ontario Society that was pushing for it. Some of the women including myself thought – oh, we have so much fun together, will we have that much fun with the men in it? But, as we got sifting through it we decided that we should.”
It turned out the men didn’t spoil the fun.
“They didn’t spoil a thing at all,” she said. “We’d have one meeting and ideas got thrown around and good ideas came from both men and women when we were together. It was well done.”
During her 44 years as a LAS member, she served as home craft president on three different occasions.
Her fondest memories may have been working with the other LAS women to cater events.
She recalled that in 1969, when the government no longer needed the Listowel Armouries for defence purposes, the land around the hall reverted to the LAS and the hall was purchased for $2,500. When the hall was sold back, the military requested the LAS cater a reunion of everyone who had trained there.
“Some of them were old people so they said it has to be a sit-down meal,” said Thompson. “We had 300 sitting in that hall for a sit-down meal. It was packed… that was the fun thing I think, the catering.”
From 1913 until the LAS received its land back in 1969, there was a mutual agreement that the LAS would have access to the land and the building for the fair.
“They would move their stuff out and we could use it,” she said. “But it runs in my mind that once in a while we had to put up a tent also because they had a lot of equipment in there too. They would just kind of cover it up and let it stay there.”
Thompson also has fond memories of her time judging the work students had submitted.
“What those kids could draw and write and the great murals that they would make – it was just marvellous to see what they had done,” she said.
Even though it was exhausting, the educational days set up in conjunction with the school board are another thing Thompson looks back on happily.
“It was a fun time,” she said.
She cheerfully added baking for the fair to the list of fond LAS memories.
“Making pies, we all made pie – we never bought a thing,” said Thompson. “The kids would come home from school and say – ‘oh, pie for supper!’ And I’d say – ‘no, those two pies are going to the fair.’ So then it got to where they would come home and say – ‘and where are those pies going?’”
She laughed heartily at the memory.
Thompson said age has caught up with her and she is glad that she is not part of the crew cooking meals for hundreds of hungry people, but she is happy to be one of those people who gets to enjoy the meals.
“Young blood is wonderful,” she said. “It all takes work and dedication and if you belong to a group you have to be dedicated to it. It wasn’t the only group I belonged to but it was the one that was closest to my heart because we were farmers and I was born on a farm.”
Thompson cherishes her time working with the other LAS ladies.
“There were no slouches,” she said. “We couldn’t slouch. You’d get run over if you slowed down too much… we were all younger and as we got older we started to quit and the young ones were coming along and they took over and it just carried right on.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner