Michael Dawe: This isn’t the first summer Red Deer’s fair has been cancelled

Normally, today, July 15, would have been the start of the annual Westerner Exposition, commencing with a large parade through the downtown area.

However, as is universally known, this is nowhere near a normal year.

This is not, however, the first time that the annual Red Deer Fair/Exhibition has not been held. The fairs of both 1910 and 1911 were cancelled, due to significant organizational and financial difficulties.

The roots of the problems leading up to the cancellation of two years of fairs go back to 1902, when the Red Deer Agricultural Society decided to purchase a beautiful tract of land south of Parkvale. The new site was named Alexandra Park, in honour of Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward VII.

There were a number of major expenses involved in developing the new fairgrounds. Unfortunately, the resources of the agricultural society were strained by those costs.

Finally, it was decided that more capital could be secured by dissolving the agricultural society and replacing it with a community-owned corporation known as the Red Deer Exhibition Association.

Title to the fairgrounds and buildings was transferred from the society to the association on Feb. 26, 1907.

Plans were then undertaken to get the new operation started with a “bang.” There was a feeling that the traditional fall fair should be replaced with a summer event. However, the association decided to start off by having both a summer and fall fair.

It was a serious mistake. Red Deer was not big enough to support two fairs. Also, the onset of a sharp recession severely cut into the sale of shares, as well as the amount of donations and sponsorships.

Bad weather added to the headaches. Rain cut attendance at the summer fair. There was a heavy snowfall in early September, which put a major damper on the fall event.

Nevertheless, the new association produced a positive financial statement. That was mainly accomplished by valuing the fairgrounds and buildings at 60 per cent more than the amount the former agricultural society had recorded in its annual financial statement to the provincial government.

The financial and organizational problems for the association continued to escalate. Finally, the association turned to the town for major assistance.

Not surprisingly, there were significant complications to the proposals.

First, the town solicitor indicated that since all but one of the aldermen were shareholders in the association, they could not vote on the proposed sale of the fairgrounds to the town. That was finally resolved when the shares in question were transferred to others.

Nevertheless, there were many protracted disputes and some lawsuits. All the while, the bank began to press heavily for payments on the surging debts.

Fortunately, attendance at the 1909 summer fair was very good. That indicated good community support for the annual exhibition and other projects organized by the association.

Finally, the association was dissolved. Title to the fairgrounds and buildings was transferred to the town following a positive vote in a plebiscite. A new Red Deer Agricultural Society was created to run the operations.

While things were sorted out, no fair was held in 1910 or 1911. However, a great deal of effort was put into the staging of the 1912 exhibition. There were big investments in a new grandstand, exhibit halls and livestock barns. Promotion of the big “fresh start” was extensive.

The result was one of the very best summer fairs ever held in Red Deer. It became the model upon which many subsequent exhibitions were judged.

A great many fairs have since been held, in good times and some very bad times, such as the two world wars and the Great Depression.

The Red Deer Agricultural Society/Red Deer Exhibition Association/Westerner Exposition Association have undergone two more major reorganizations (1965 and 1979), and a relocation to new exhibition grounds on the south side of the city in 1980-82.

Nevertheless, over those many decades, there was always a summer exhibition, until the international COVID outbreak of 2020.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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