Ahhh, the country fair.
A time for homemade pies, barn dances, and… worm races?
Yes, worm races. Decades ago, nothing used to draw a crowd quite like the Ryder Lake International Dew Worm Races. It was a time-honoured tradition for 33 years, part and parcel with the Ryder Lake Country Fair. Children and adults alike vied for the grand ribbons and coveted trophies, and in some years more than 100 people would take part in the races. And then, a volunteer drought swept through Ryder Lake, and the races dried up.
But there’s good news. Those worm races are resurfacing and being added to the Ryder Lake Country Fair on July 22. Organizers are hoping to reach out to those once-champion worm wranglers who were forced into early retirement, and to a new generation who may want to give the sport a try.
With just a few weeks until race day, it’s time to start thinking of race strategies, says Heather Werner, caretaker of the Ryder Lake Hall.
Anyone can enter, she says, and there will be plenty of prizes to go around. The entry fee per race will be $2. There are volunteers right now who are working on making big beautiful ribbons, and there will even be a chance to win the Grand Champion Prize. Volunteers have pulled out the old race tracks at the hall, and are looking forward to bringing this once-cherished event back to life. While she’s never witnessed the races herself, Werner’s learned through chatting with longtime locals just how they get the worms to race.
“You have one person operating a spray bottle, and one person tickling the worm with a paint brush,” she says. And while races in the past have allowed worm trainers to bring in their own “athletes,” Werner says there will be enough worms on hand for everyone to give the races a try.
“We’re going to supply the worms,” she says, with a laugh. “That way we can ensure they’re drug free.”
They’ve learned a few tricks from long time resident Dorothy Bendsen, who knows how to get the worms to come to the surface to be gathered en masse.
“We’re going to try to fish them out of everyone’s yards,” Werner says, by flooding the ground. “They just love that.”
Beyond all the fun, the worm races really do hold historic meaning in Ryder Lake. The hall on Elkview Road was made possible by locals who fundraised and built it themselves. Children of the area were enlisted to help with clearing the site and helping with smaller job tasks. When the time came to celebrate the opening of the hall, someone decided that dew worm races would be a great way for them to have a little fun and win some prizes.
That was in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s the event had taken hold of the whole community. Newspaper articles from across the races’ 33-year history show mayors, aldermen, MPs and MLAs showing up to take part. There were dignitary races, media participation, kids events and even international entries.
For years, the funds raised through the fair went directly back to improve and upkeep the hall itself. The need for both still exists, and Werner says there is a growing interest in bringing the fair back to its full glory. Some of the improvements to come will be accessible washroom space,
“We’re super excited,” she says. “Especially because there are so many young couples who have moved up here. We just want to see the community come together and make use of the hall as much as possible. But there’s a lot of upkeep we have to do for the hall.”
The Ryder Lake Farmers’ Institute and the Women’s Institute have banded together to organize the fair, which goes beyond just the dew worm races. There will be a kids’ play zone (with a small, one-time admission fee), a dog-and-pony show for the kids, a bake sale, vendors on site, a beer garden, barn dance, and another old relic of a country fair — chicken poop bingo.
The adults-only dance is a ticketed event and will have a DJ and a cash bar and will start at about 8 p.m.
Besides entertaining the locals, the Ryder Lake Country Fair is also a chance for visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of the area. There are people Werner has met, she says, who don’t even know Ryder Lake exists.
But Ryder Lake used to be well known, specifically for the dew worm races. Over the years, hundreds of people would have competed in the races. Some brought their own from their backyards, others took a chance on squigglers that were provided by race organizers. And because the fair was always held close to the August long weekend, it often drew in competitors who were visiting Ryder Lake from around the world. There have been competitors, and winners, from Mexico, Germany, England, Ireland and many others.
The last champion of the Ryder Lake International Dew Worm Races, in 1998, was Bendsen’s grandmother, Clara Lethbridge Jones, who was visiting from England. She was so thrilled with the trophy, she took back across the pond with her.
Bendsen took part as a parent when she moved to Ryder Lake more than 30 years ago. In the 1980s, her children — John, Nick and Christian — all raced and all earned trophies.
“My kids would show up in their Ryder Lake standard attire, which was cutoff shorts and gumboots, covered in mud,” she recalls. “Anybody can race. My grandmother visited from Coventry, England and became the first international dew worm racing champion. She took that trophy home and put it in a bar in Coventry.”
If it all seems a little too much, Bendsen admits that is. But it was worth it.
“It was such a corny thing to do,” she says. “It was the most corny thing we’d ever seen that’s why everybody embraced it so well.”
But to really give an idea of its significance in the community, there are almost 200 mentions of the dew worm races in the archives of The Chilliwack Progress. Stories describing the races filled the newspaper’s pages, along with photographs of worm trainers urging their steeds to the finish line.
To get in on the action, be at the Ryder Lake Country Fair on July 22 beginning at 11 a.m. More information is available on the event’s Facebook page, under Ryder Lake Country Fair. The Ryder Lake Hall is located at 49265 Elkview Road.
-with files from Jenna Hauck