The Ferris Wheel — a classic fair ride — is silhouetted against the afternoon sun on the very last day of the Westerner Days Fair and Exposition.

Westerner Days: the little fair that could

Hang on to your lunch — it’s back!

Hang on to your lunch — it’s back!

One of the most popular and requested midway rides at Westerner Days — the Zipper — returns for this year’s milestone Westerner Days Fair and Exhibition after having been absent for a few years.

2016 marks the 125th anniversary of the tiny fair that has grown into the city’s biggest summer memory maker, drawing thousands through the gates — 99,614 in 2015.

Westerner marketing manager Meghan Gustum says they are hoping to surpass 100,000 in total attendance in 2016 — a year where many people have decided on vacationing closer to home given the slowdown in Alberta’s economy.

Gustum said there will be more rides this year — 42 — and a greater variety of them during the five-day multi-faceted summer event than starts from Wednesday and ends Sunday.

All the mainstay thrill rides will be there, as well as another new ride, the Cliff Hanger, as well as the family rides such as the ferris wheel and bumper cars, and the kiddie rides, such as Monster Truck and Choo Choo Charlie.

To mark the fair’s 125th birthday, there will be fireworks four of the five evenings, Gustum said, instead of just on one night of past Westerner Days. The skies will light up each night at 10:45 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday inclusive, weather permitting. The forecast is promising so far — sunshine and temperatures of around 25C each day.

One of the Westerner Days highlights was going to be the Lord Strathcona Musical Ride but performances for all of July had to be cancelled because the ride’s horses were exposed to a contagious respiratory virus.

“It was disappointing but completely understandable. Animal safety and welfare is very important to us so we completely understand the decision they had to make,” Gustum said.

What they have in place now to open the North American Pony Chuckwagon Championships races each night is a trick riders group, Hearts of the West – Stewart Family Wild West Show. “They are going to be a great show.”

There will be 27 food vendors, some of them local food truck operators, at the Grub Hub, which will also see a gluten-free vendor this year.

Entertainment in the beer gardens has been doubled and includes Alberta artists with the focus on Central Alberta artists, Gustum said.

Westerner Days is also jam-packed with many other activities and things to see at the fair this year, including the petting zoo, water balls, super dogs, high divers and jugglers, to name a few. As well there’s the agricultural components with horses, cattle, goats, rabbits and other farm creatures.

The history of the Westerner goes back to the days when communities would have a summer or fall festival, something deeply rooted in North American culture, says local historian Michael Dawe.

It’s a way of promoting the community and showcasing some of its entertainment.

The first local fair was held in 1892 on Ross Street downtown, organized by the then Red Deer Agricultural Society. It was very successful and everybody in the community of about 150 people turned out, said Dawe.

There were exhibits of products that people grew or made, and the animals they raised, followed by a huge harvest festival at the end since back then it was a fall fair. As it grew, the fair moved over to the CPR roundhouse, the biggest building in Red Deer then.

In 1902 the society bought the land in the southeast part of the river valley. This was the fairgrounds for the next 80 years in the downtown area where the old Arena came to be (and which is being torn down now to make way for a new one). Big events were always held there, not just the fair.

“It was really the centre of a lot of things,” Dawe said, whether it be sporting or entertainment or jubilee celebrations.

In 1965, the society became the non-profit organization, the Red Deer Exhibition Association, which then became the Western Exposition Association in 1979, an organization today that provides recreational, commercial, exhibition, entertainment, and meeting venues all year long, Dawe said.

By the 1970s, Red Deer’s population was growing quickly, and the fairgrounds had become too small. The first fair on today’s grounds was held in 1983. The land now houses numerous facilities such as the UFA Agricentre with livestock barns and show rings, the Harvest Centre and of course the Centrium (home to the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels), which opened in 1991.

The Westerner is now also home to Agri-Trade in November, which has become one of biggest farm shows in Canada.

The Festival of Trees, now the pre-eminent Christmas celebration in the community, is held at the Westerner grounds.

The Westerner organization would not have grown and prospered like it has without a large volunteer component, Dawe said.

A “large impressive” mural of historical photos at the Centrium will be unveiled later this year, he said.

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