The biggest fall fair of them all

For all its top-hatted finery, its haughty jumpers, its big-name stars, the Royal remains as rural as a rail fence and gives the world a down-to-earth look at our farmers in action

RICHARD O’HAGAN November 22 1958

The biggest fall fair of them all

For all its top-hatted finery, its haughty jumpers, its big-name stars, the Royal remains as rural as a rail fence and gives the world a down-to-earth look at our farmers in action

RICHARD O’HAGAN November 22 1958

The biggest fall fair of them all

For all its top-hatted finery, its haughty jumpers, its big-name stars, the Royal remains as rural as a rail fence and gives the world a down-to-earth look at our farmers in action


In scores of towns and villages across Canada autumn brings with it, as surely as bronze leaves and the smell of preserves, a familiar institution known as the Fall Fair. Its character has not changed much over the years. In most cases, it is the same neighborly, simple meeting ground and showplace it’s always been. There is. however, one particularly notable exception: a fall fair that started big, grew bigger, and is today the country’s greatest annual exhibition of livestock and farm produce.

It is not held, as one might reasonably expect, close to the earth, on the edge of a recognized agricultural centre like Calgary or Brandon or Regina. Rather, it is spread over twentysix and a half acres of concrete floor, under one rambling roof, on the humming north shore of Lake Ontario near the heart of Toronto.

Because of this the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair—it's always held in November despite its name—is able to lay undisputed claim to the title of the largest indoor agricultural show in the world. Officially, the Royal calls itself “Canada’s Show Window of Agriculture.” Less formally, the farm magazine Family Herald describes it as “a national strutting place.”

This is probably closer to the mark since the Royal is a kind of ceremonial parade ground for a remarkable medley of birds and beasts. Last year it drew 2,637 cattle, 1,436 horses, 792 sheep, 656 swine. 53 goats, 3,813 chickens, cocks, turkeys, ducks and geese, and large numbers of pigeons, canaries, budgerigars, rabbits and guinea pigs.

The more than fifteen thousand entries. including poultry and dairy products, honey and maple syrup, flowers, fruits, vegetables and even tropical fish, were examined — sometimes knowingly, often blankly — by close to a quarter of a million people. A hundred and twenty-five judges needed four miles of ribbon and rosettes to

festoon all the winners and runners-up and $134,562 to fill the cash-prize quotas.

This month the Royal opens its doors for the thirtieth time. It will open them on what the magazine Farmer and Stockman has called “a magnificent spectacle displaying the best in every phase of agricultural production in Canada.”

But with all its dignity, the Royal has never lost its eye for publicity. A few years ago it arranged to have a one-ton Aberdeen Angus bull led, snorting, into a china store on Bloor Street, Toronto's most fashionable shopping strip.

Quite naturally, Harry Savage, the publicity man who engineered the stunt, summoned photographers to record the sight. He cheerfully explained, at the same time, that Stype Gudrun (the bull’s name) was stopping there amid the Spode and Wedgwood only briefly; he was really on his way to the fair.

Once there, Gudrun doubtless did his owners proud by eliciting a handsome bid or two, for the Royal is not

only the country’s most prestigious show ring, it is also,an important market place. While many sales are negotiated privately, the heavy turnover is sparked by the public auctions. Last year, livestock and produce auctioned at the Royal fetched $332,627. A syndicate of Argentine ranchers made the most impressive single purchase. They paid $18,500 for a Holstein bull, six months old.

The Royal has, of course, become an international affair. In 1957, for example, the wheat championship, of all things, went to a Briton.

Every year more and more people are turning up at the Royal from the United States, from Bermuda and the West Indies, from Central and South America, from Australia and New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, France. Germany, Italy. Last November the entire Moscow Dynamos hockey team, in Canada for an exhibition series, spent an evening touring the Royal. They especially asked for a chance to see it.

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The biggest fall fair of them all

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But the Royal is first and foremost a show for the home folks. Certainly to thousands of future farmers from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island it is a magic name, a kind of agricultural Mecca. National 4-H Club Week is always arranged to coincide with the Royal and last year, as usual, a picked crop of one hundred and thirty-four teen-agers were the Royal’s guests for a day.

Other young Canadians get to the Royal by spending a week on draughty freight trains nursemaiding livestock. Far from finding this a hardship, most of them are delighted at the opportunity. Not only do they all but live with their animals coming and going; many also do this at the fair. There is the relative luxury of the herdsmen’s dormitory— four hundred and fifty beds, sixteen to a room—but a lot of the young stockmen, older ones too, plunk down a bedroll in the yellow straw at the head of a stall and never sleep anywhere else until it’s time to load up and go home.

The Royal reached its status as Canadian agriculture’s high court almost from its beginning. Originally planned for 1921, the grand opening was postponed when a heating system couldn’t be installed in time. The doors opened on Nov. 22, 1922, and, except for the seven war years when it was suspended, the Royal has been a going concern ever since.

Its popularity reached a peak when the first postwar fair was held in 1946. There was an almost frantic public hungering for entertainment and the Royal took a buffeting from overflow crowds. So intense did the congestion become that the Royal bought newspaper space and radio time asking the public to stay away. It even went so far as to set up a publicaddress system in the Canadian National Exhibition grounds where its building is located, at streetcar terminals and other key points around the city, and they all blared the same message: no room at the fair.

It hasn’t been necessary to resort to this kind of drastic action since, although in most of its postwar presentations the Royal has succeeded in turning a profit. One of the tidier margins (twenty thousand dollars) was registered in 1956 and the executive gave much of the credit for that happy situation to, of all people, Arthur Godfrey. He came to Toronto as a rather casual guest star of the Royal’s horse show (he got interested in it after meeting one of its officers at a horse show in the States) and proved a tonic for the whole fair.

Godfrey scored his hit with a somewhat unlikely act. Riding his own Palo-

mino stallion, he gave nightly demonstrations of an equestrian specialty called dressage, which is the guidance of a horse through a set of manoeuvres without perceptible use of hands or legs. Since Godfrey as a rider is only an adept amateur at best, the real entertainment came from the running commentary he delivered through a small microphone that hung arotind his neck. Godfrey refused any payment but accepted as a gift a prize Hereford bull. The management of the Royal is understandably happy about his decision to come back this year.

With or without Arthur Godfrey, the Royal Horse Show is recognized as one of the three top horse shows in North America, the others being the Pennsylvania National at Harrisburg and the National at New York.

lop hats and jeans

Since the draught horses—the noble Clydesdales, Percherons and Belgians— have been shunted off to an exercise ring for judging, the Royal has become even more the classic horse show of well-turned-out ladies and gentlemen putting threeand five-gaited saddle horses, roadsters, hunters and jumpers through their paces. It is also a horse show spiced with the high style and excitement of international jumping teams from countries like Argentina, Ireland, Chile. Mexico, France, Spain, Cuba, Germany, Great Britain and the U. S. as well as Canada.

All these events are run off in the Coliseum, a seventy - one - hundred - seat amphitheatre that is the hub of the Winter Fair layout. It is where the Royal’s opening and closing ceremonies are held and where, in an atmosphere of briskly marching guards of honor, martial music and unfurling flags, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and the Governor-General of Canada are welcomed yearly on their traditional visits. It is where the Royal puts on its top hat.

Each of the Coliseum’s two hundred and sixty-eight boxes accommodates from five to eight people and, depending on location, costs from a hundred and twenty-five to three hundred dollars. These boxes, for which there is always a waiting list, are largely occupied by men in white ties and tails and brilliantly gowned women in jewels and expensive furs; their liveried chauffeurs standing outside make an intriguing contrast with exhibitors strolling to the livestock pens in windbreakers and jeans.

The horse show is all the entertainment the true Royal fan wants and there is no need for a carnival midway or

gaudy booths. But even in the cattlejudging ring there are moments of hilarity.

In 1948 a farm lass named Ellen Bompas from Bell’s Corners, Ont., entered her champion Ayrshire cow at the Royal. As the only woman exhibitor in the class, Ellen was the subject of more than a little amused interest. Undisturbed, she prepared her entry, brushed its coat, combed its tail, polished its hoofs and finally buffed its horns.

In the ring the judge examined one animal after another, noting the chuck, shanks, brisket, loin and flanks. After completing his survey, he stood back for a moment, then walked to Ellen’s cow, gave it a resounding slap on the rump and pinned the red first-prize ribbon on its halter.

In the next instant the cow gave its head a vigorous toss, trying to shake the ribbon from over its eye. It succeeded. But at the same time one of it's horns went flying through the air and landed almost at the feet of the astonished judge.

Oakville cowboy

The spectators burst into cheers and applause while the other exhibitors crowded around the slightly nonplussed Ellen. How, they wanted to know, had she managed to patch a broken horn so thoroughly that it escaped the detection of the judge? Nothing to it, Ellen explained: a little paste, some fingernail polish and, of course, a touch of feminine ingenuity. At fall fairs and exhibitions across the country, wherever cattle judges gather, the flying horn of Ellen Bompas’ Ayrshire is still a lively topic of conversation.

No animal with broken horn or any other obvious defect is likely to pass muster at the most dramatic of the Royal’s auctions, a series of seven breedingstock sales—six for cattle and one for sheep—that run under the common banner “Sales of the Stars.”

Animals bought at them in 1957 went to eight provinces, ten states, three countries in South America and to Bermuda.

Manager of the sales is bustling Tom Hays, a forty-four-year-old onetime Edmonton Eskimos lineman who still wears western cattleman’s garb around his Oakville, Ont., farm. Hays, who describes his firm as North America’s big-

gest exporter of purebred livestock, operates the Sales of the Stars on a fifteenpercent commission, turning two and a half percent back to the Royal. Since the sales were started in 1949, Hays has sold over sixteen hundred animals for a million and a quarter dollars.

Hays usually functions as ring-man at the sales while his older brother, Harry, who owns a four-thousand-acre ranch near Calgary, acts as auctioneer. Alternating low-key cajolery with the traditional chant, Harry keeps the bidding brisk. From his platform in the arenastyle cattle ring, he praises the stock on sale, occasionally comparing prices he’s noted in the west with the “bargains” at the Royal.

“They've got to have beef.” he always says reassuringly. The price is going to be the highest in three years.”

Just as Hays has no doubt about the future of the beef market', Clarence S. McKee, the former lawyer-soldier-stockbroker who is the Royal’s general manager, has no doubt about the future of Canada’s top fall fair. However, the need for more space is pressing. Viscount Montgomery, invited to open the Royal four years ago, remarked with characteristic candor: “It does seem to me that the building is a bit cramped.”

In the Horse Palace the exercise ring is busy all day from 4:30 a.m. The admission of three new beef cattle breeds had to be denied last year for lack of room and several days of preliminary livestock judging were held before the fair opened. A new cattle-judging ring, with seating for three thousand, is under consideration.

An accommodation problem of an entirely different nature arose at the Royal last year. The number of female grooms with the international jumping teams has been increasing annually—the 1957 British team alone had four—and the girls felt that since they had to live with the horses they should at least have a shower of their own.

There was a moment of perplexed hesitation when their desire became known at a higher level but it duly gave way to action; the plumbers were called in and the shower installed.

An official of the fair described it as “one of our more peculiar requests.” Then he added with a touch of pride: “But this is the Royal . . . and we handled it.” if