Picture Caledonia in 1873. Canada is seven years old and Caledonia is a thriving village on the banks of the scenic Grand River. The building of the plank road in 1842 and the arrival of the rail station in 1852 have brought a measure of prosperity. On January 16th, 1873, a meeting is held in the Caledonia Town Hall and a motion is made that it is "desirable to form an Agricultural and Arts Society for the purpose of holding Agricultural and Arts Exhibitions every Fall". Thus, the Caledonia Agricultural and Arts Society was founded. The first Caledonia fair was held on October 15th, 1873 on Edinburgh Square. There was no admission to the fair but ten cents was charged to see homecraft and horticultural displays in the Drill Hall. Hugh Stewart served as President over a board of 32 Directors.
The present fairgrounds were purchased in 1878 from the Government of Canada for $250.00 with the assistance of David Thompson, MP for Haldimand. The grounds were surveyed, fenced and the Drill Hall moved in time to hold the first two day fair on the new grounds that year. Unfortunately it rained heavily and the Society had to negotiate a loan of $125 to pay prizes.
The 1880's witnessed many improvements to the fairgrounds. A tree planting program began and a plank walk was build from the the Entrance Gate to the Drill Hall. The race track was built since "fast horses" were a major attraction. It was leased to the Caledonia Driving Society with rent to be applied to the repair of the track. Box Stalls were erected in 1883 and a Judge's Stand built at a cost of $49. By 1885 it was evident that more space was needed and several adjoining lots at the west end were purchased. To convince one lady to sell her property, the Society presented her with five bags of potatoes! A twenty foot extension was added to her house and became the Fair's Dining Hall. The 1888 Fair was completely rained out and once again the Society had to borrow money.
The next decade was an active time for the Society. In 1891 the fairgrounds, then called the "Park", were once again extended with the purchase of a lot at the east end As well, in 1891 the President received a letter from the Treasurer of the defunct Central Fair of Hamilton indicating that they wished to sell their grandstand. The Board authorized a bid of $100.00 but it was not accepted until 1893. It was then moved from Victoria Park for a cost of $150.00. The grounds were leased to the Baseball, Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club for one dollar each. In 1896 tenders were received for the building of 58 rods of Park Fence. The following year the Caledonia Bicycle Club rented the "Agricultural Park" in the summer months for $17.00 The Silver Jubilee Exhibition in 1897 had gate receipts of $1065.65 with a prize pay out of $1106.00 Records also indicate that in 1893 the first Lady Directors were named.
The turn of the century witnessed many changes for the Fair. In February of 1900 the fair sent delegates for the first time to the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association of Fair and Exhibitons in Toronto. Also in that year, arrangements were made with the Minister of Agricultural to amalgamate the York Fair with the Caledonia Agricultural and Arts Society. The Building Committee constructed 200 feet of stock sheds on the grounds for a cost of $350.00 These were rented out to Cattle, Sheep and Pig Exhibitors for a cost of 50 cents per stall. A new three story Judge's Stand was erected and a committee was formed to organize special attractions in front of the Grandstand. Gas fixtures were purchased for the Drill Hall and sidewalks were installed. For many years, the Board discussed the possiblity of constructing a two-way tunnel under the race track to improve pedestrian traffic. In 1909 the famous Caledonia Fair tunnel was built for a cost of $600. In 1910 the Village of Caledonia requested a Special Meeting to discuss the possibility of building a skating and curling rink on the grounds. It was felt that the 160' x 100' structure would be beneficial to both parties. The Society granted a sum of $500.00 toward the project and was to have free use of the building and a first mortgage. The proposal was not completed at this time.
In 1902 a Haldimand Old Boy's Reunion was held in conjunction with the Fair and over 11,000 people attended, most arriving by special train. Sachem headlines boasted "WE HAD A GREAT FAIR." The Fair minute book states that "Caledonia can scarcely handle a much larger crowd and the agricultural park which by the way cannot be enlarged has proved far too small years ago."
One curious development in this period was a change in the name of the Fair. On January 8, 1902 it was moved by Joseph Hudspeth and Robt. Creighton that "we form a new Society .... to be known as the Seneca and Oneida Agricultural Society." In 1907 the Department of Agriculture instructed that the name change to the Caledonia Agricultural Society.
At the Annual Meeting in 1912 the President declared that the "society is in a very flourishing condition" with assets totalling $8117. Several items of interest appear in the Minute Book during this decade. Ribbons were used in place of cards for awards in the livestock classes. The Grounds Committee was granted $700 to improve the track and $500 to erect new horse stalls at the east end of the grounds. Hydrants were installed opposite the grounds for fire protection and attendance turnstiles were purchased. In 1915 a secretary's and ticket office were constructed as well as a restroom and "closet for ladies." During the years of the First World War, the Dining Hall was given to the ladies for Red Cross Work and the Society donated $300 to the War Fund.
The Fair suffered during the twenties and thirties. In fact the minutes of the Annual Meeting of 1920 seemed to foreshadow what lay ahead. The weather was stormy and the meeting adjourned early since the hall was too cold. The fair suffered from frequent rainy dates and once again had to borrow money to meet expenditures. The first three day fair in 1928 was established to try and cut inclement weather losses. Despite the financially difficult times, improvements continued. The Cattle sheds were extended, four ventilators installed and some of the buildings were wired for electricity.
In 1924 the issue of constructing an Arena on the grounds resurfaced. A committee of citizens approached the Board and after many special meetings the Fair agreed to "enter into a contract with the Caledonia Arena Ltd. providing for the conveyance of a parcel of land in return for the use of the building to be erected thereon." The Drill Hall which had been turned over to the Fair from the Dept. of the Militia in 1922 was taken down and an Arena built. The Fair received $300 stock in the Arena Company.
During the Depression gates admissions were reduced from 50 cents to 25 cents. In 1935 receipts were so low that the fair could only initially pay 65 cents on the dollar. The fair also purchased Liability Insurance for the first time in 1936. Of special note, the first time the fair was not held was in 1937 when the Board of Health cancelled all fairs due to an outbreak of polio. The only other time has been in 2020 during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The fair survived the depression years and moved on to the challenges of the early forties and the war years. In 1942 the board moved that "all persons in the King's uniform be admitted free." Prize List covers included headlines of "Carry on Canada" and "On To Victory." Win The War categories were offered. Money was donated to a variety of War Funds including $50 to the Victory Club "to assist them in their work sending boxes to the boys of the surrounding District who are fighting for our freedom." In 1943 the Arena display was considered "good under war conditions" and boasted a "Bacon for Britain" Exhibit.
The War ended and the Fair enjoyed a much needed influx of young men joining the Society. In 1945 an extensive improvement program was undertaken. The grounds were levelled, the race track widened and new fences built. Muncipal water was also installed. This was not without controversy. A special meeting was held with some members voicing "vigorous protests" over the "spending of too much money." Considerable effort was given to the Exhibition Hall and the minutes reveal that "outsiders were delighted with the attractiveness and neatness of our hall." In 1946 Reg Hudspeth was appointed Fair Secretary, assuming the position from his father Weylie. Reg was well respected in the fair community and continued as Secretary until his retirement in 1977.
The Arena is a recurring theme in the history of Caledonia Fair. In 1946 the Caledonia Arena Co. was in financial trouble and after lengthy discussion, the Society agreed to consider the purchase of the Arena from the mortgage holder. However, it was not until April of 1949 that the Fair completed the deal. Apart from the $2800 for the building, other expenses included: installation of lavatory, $1500; painting of building, $1000; building road fence, $800; flood lighting, $500; and repair to Arena, $600. The Fair took over the operations of the Arena and began the endless task and expense of keeping it repaired.
By 1953, Caledonia Fair was the tenth largest of the 249 fairs in Ontario and continued to improve. In 1958 the Sheep and Pig Barn were lost to fire but new barns were rebuilt that same year. Electricity was added to all the barns. The Fair enjoyed good weather, attendance soared. and the Fair office finally got a telephone.
In 1961 the main entrance to the Arena was modernized. The Exhibition Hall became the showcase of the Fair and 1800 new royal blue and gold streamers were suspended from the ceiling . Nearly a quarter of a mile of red, white and blue bunting and five truck loads of autumn leaves decorated the exhibits. Lady Directors wore new wine coloured blazers and the Men Directors sported tan coloured, ten gallons hats.
A major restructuring of the grounds took place in 1962. The old grandstand was beyond repair. A new grandstand with a capacity of 1260 was built along the river bank. Unfortunately it rained continuously on all 3 days and nights of the fair and it was not used.
A new entrance was added to the Exhibition Hall in 1966 in time for the special events of Centennial year. Centennial features included an antique parlour and kitchen, antique school supplies and a Spelling Match. All directors wore period costume. Once again, plans were defeated by the weather. Continuous rain forced the cancellation of the horse shows, races and night shows. However it was reported that "over 12,000 loyal people braved the elements clad in every type of raincoat and rubber footwear imaginable."
The seventies were an eventful decade for the Fair. In 1970 a new horse barn was built at the east end of the grounds. In May of 1970 the town proposed a new Arena which would be owned by the Society and leased to the Caledonia Community Service Board for ten months of each year. The Society agreed and donated $10,000 to the project. It was then discovered that in order to obtain a debenture, the Society needed to deed the land (approximately 120' by 220') over to the town. The Society did this and a 99 year lease was signed. Another highlight was the announcement in 1971 that the fair had achieved Class A status, the highest classification for fairs in Ontario. The following year the Fair celebrated its 100th birthday will many special features and projects.
By the early seventies, a four day fair was discussed. Midways had become a means of financial survival for most fairs and without the promise of an extra day's revenue, the Midway could not promise continued association with the Fair. After much debate, Caledonia held its first four day fair in 1974. The current Fair Office and Dining Hall were built in 1974 as a joint project with the Kinsmen.
In the 1980's and 90's, the Society began to meet the challenge of adapting to a changing population. Where once the Fair met the needs of a largely rural population, urbanization required new strategies in what experts were now calling "the fair industry." Livestock competitions were no longer enough. Agri-education became a major focus with demonstrations and displays helping to bridge the growing gap between urban and rural. The Special Events Platform was started in 1986 to offer more entertainment for fair visitors. A new Poultry Building was also built that year.
Towards the end of the decade, the Society reluctantly admitted that it was time to retire Horse Races at the Fair. The track barely met industry standards and the tunnel under the racetrack needed major repair. Thus 1989 saw the last "fast horses" at Caledonia Fair. (Officially races were still on the 1990 program but rain forced their cancellation.) The tunnel was covered over in 1991. It was definitely the end of an era but the fairgrounds gained some much needed space. The Horse Barn at the east end of the grounds was renovated in 1995 to became Squire McKinnon's Barn, a popular animal display. 1997 marked the Fair’s 125th anniversary with special celebrations throughout the year.
The 2000s were a very different decade for the Fair. Following the construction of a new twin-pad arena at McKinnon Park, the Arena became known as ‘The Old Arena’ and ownership was transferred to the Society in 2005. For the first time, the Society now had a seasonal-indoor event space which quickly became a popular spot for local events, parties, and fundraisers. The building was not entirely functional due to its prior-life as a sports arena, and the Society began to make small renovations almost immediately. A stage was installed in place of bleachers, washrooms were expanded, and an accessible family washroom was installed during the 2000s.
By 2010, the Old Arena was in need of major upgrades. A new roof was installed with the support of government grants and community fundraising– this marked the first phase of a major renovation project which the Society had begun to plan. Seven consecutive years of rain dampened Fair attendance and revenues, but spirits remained strong. In 2017, the Society launched the ’Creating Memories, Building Community’ campaign to renovate the Old Arena and create a new ’Riverside Exhibition Centre.’ These dreams were realized in 2018 when, thanks to the contributions of the community, enough funds were raised to begin construction. The Old Arena was officially closed after the 2018 Fair with construction set to be completed in time for the Fair’s 147th anniversary in 2019. While it was not entirely finished, the building was open for the 2019 Fair and many thousands of excited guests flocked to the Exhibition Hall to see the new renovated space. Long-time Fair Manager Vickie Peart retired at the end of the 2019 Fair following a dedicated tenure of 43-years service to the Society.
In early 2020, the Riverside Exhibition Centre was completed. Though community fundraising goals were exceeded, the Society was burdened with considerable debt which was necessary to see the completion of the full renovation project. Despite this financial burden, the future looked bright with a brand new, beautiful facility which would allow the Society year-round revenue from rentals and fundraisers. In early 2020, Government-imposed lockdowns due to the COVID-19 virus resulted in world-wide shut downs. For the first time ever, the gates to the Fairgrounds were closed and locked. What began as a short-term closure, became drawn out for over six-months. Public Health measures meant to ’flatten the curve’ resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 Fair– only the second time a Fair was cancelled in our history. The first time the fair was not held was in 1937 when the Board of Health cancelled all fairs due to an outbreak of polio. The 149th Fair in 2021 allowed the community to come together again. Though COVID-19 restrictions remained in place, the Society worked diligently to ensure a safe and fun time was had by all who visited.
In 2022, the Society proudly celebrates its150th Anniversary. It is a time of reflection as we look back at the people and events that have shaped our history. We thank them for our legacy. This year's fair will certainly look different from that small fair on Edinburgh Square in 1873. Continued pandemic restrictions and uncertainty will also impact the celebrations. Yet the enduring qualities of our traditional country fair remain the same. There will still be anticipation and excitement in the crisp, autumn air as friends and family gather together for another edition of the Caledonia Fair.