Small-town fairs roar back to life as crowds flock to community touchstones

·3 min read

Some Southwestern Ontario communities are anticipating large crowds as they prepare to host their annual fixture – the fall fair – for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

Based on the response to fairs already held in Ontario this year, many rural communities can expect to see potentially record-breaking numbers in attendance this fall, said Liz O’Gorman-Smit, president of the Ontario Association of Agricultural Societies (OAAS). The umbrella group represents more than 200 non-profit agricultural societies that run fairs.

“People have been really anxious to get out and be out in the community and see what’s going on again,” O’Gorman-Smit said. “Generally, we’ve been hearing that attendance has been up considerably for many fairs.”

Despite the financial blow of the pandemic, with their in-person fundraising events nixed or significantly scaled back, almost all of Ontario’s agricultural societies managed to bring back the annual tradition.

“A lot of them were very innovative and went on to do activities (so) that they could raise some money still, to cover their expenses,” O’Gorman-Smit said, citing drive-through meals, 50/50 draws and online auctions.

Funding from the province played an important role, too, said O’Gorman-Smit. During the last two years, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs spent millions of dollars to assist Ontario’s agricultural and horticultural societies.

In Thorndale, northeast of London, new sponsorships from families and businesses in the community have helped the agricultural society prepare to host its first in-person fair since 2019, president Amanda Elliott said.

“It looks like everyone missed the fair as much as we have, which is great,” she said.

Fall fairs have existed in Ontario for decades, with about 60 per cent of them established prior to 1867, according to the agricultural societies association. Some are older than Canada itself, with many dating back to the 1800s. Established in 1836, Woodstock Agricultural Society is among the earliest of such organizations and is believed to be the oldest in Southwestern Ontario.

In Glencoe, this year marks the 145th anniversary of the fair that will feature everything from its annual demolition derby to live entertainment and a parade during two days, Sept. 23 and 24.

“We’re happy to be back,” said Kathryn Lambert, president of Glencoe Fair.

“Just from some other events we’ve had this year, we’re anticipating a great crowd, so we’re looking forward to that and planning for that,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Glencoe Fair typically saw up to 6,000 attendees annually. But after two years of nixed gatherings, Lambert expects that number to be higher.

She said the community’s annual truck and tractor pull event held in July drew about 3,000 people, nearly double the number of attendees seen in previous years before the pandemic.

The pent-up demand is hitting larger cities as well. At London’s Western Fair, the number of people who bought advance tickets is up at least 10 per cent from the last in-person fair in 2019, a member of the fair told The Free Press earlier this week.

O’Gorman-Smit believes the increased demand, at least in smaller communities, can partly be attributed to the growth they’ve experienced during the pandemic.

“The smaller towns are experiencing some growth in housing and that sort of thing, so there are lots of new people,” she said.

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press