The third oldest of its kind in the province, the annual Chilliwack Fair celebrates its 146th year this year. The Progress takes a look at the historic fair , its origins, and how it’s evolved during the course of its lifetime.
It was a tumultuous time in British Columbia as the economy began slumping due to the collapse of the gold rush that had run its course in the region and growing pains from a Confederation that was still in its infancy.
Becoming Canada’s sixth province in 1871, B.C. was able to unload its massive debt on the federal government, and as it was already an important spot on the map, many of its communities were flourishing despite the downturn happening in other areas.
|One of the first articles about the Fair published by “The Progress.”|
With its mild climate and proximity to the Fraser and Vedder rivers, the area once referred to as Ch’elxweyeqw in the Halq’eméylem language, which is spoken by the Sto:lo people indigenous to the area, became the Township of Chilliwhack in 1873: the third municipal government to form in the province.
That same year saw the formation of the Chilliwack Agriculture Society (CAS), which has been organizing and running the Chilliwack Agricultural Fair and Exhibition ever since.
“Reaching almost 150-years-old is a significant achievement,” said Janine Saw, executive director of the BC Association of Agricultural Fairs and Exhibitions.
“A lot of people don’t really understand the culture these organizations bring forward,” Saw continued. These fairs “are one of the last fronts of maintaining the knowledge and history of our agriculture industry. We’re very proud of the Chilliwack Exhibition for this accomplishment.”
The Chilliwack Agriculture Society & Fair
With an eye on the ever-growing population, the founding families of the area established the Chilliwack and District Agricultural Society on May 7, 1873 under the Agricultural Societies Incorporation Act of 1873: it was incorporated on the same date the following year.
And the objective of the Society, as written in their first Rules and Regulations booklet was simple: to advocate for the general interests of agriculture and stock raising through the implementation of discussions, by importing seeds, agricultural implements, breeding stock, disseminating information, and hosting exhibitions, plowing matches, et cetera.
The same year the Society was formed, the Township of Chilliwhack hosted the first annual fair in September on the property of Jonathan Reece—where A.D. Rundel Middle School is currently located—who ended up being the Society’s president in 1887.
The Fair travelled around a bit for the first decade and a bit of its existence, either being held on the properties of Reece or Isaac Kipp, another long-time member of the Society.
However, during the 1880s, the Society was able to make several land purchases, which gave them the space to build the first Agricultural Hall in 1887. The cost of building the hall was $1,350, and this was raised through the financial support of various Society members and community supporters.
“I can remember the rebuilding and renovating of that building in 1967,” said Cathy Oss, the Society’s current president.
“Part of the original structure was kept in the making of Evergreen Hall, so that piece of history is still there,” she added.
But there’s more than just architecture involved in the history of the Chilliwack Fair, which is where local culture and the agricultural community come together.
In 1889, Arthur Street imported a herd of five Jersey cows, the first of their kind in Western Canada, to the amazement of his neighbours, who ended up referring to the cattle as “Street’s goats.” Their tunes changed quickly, however, as Street and his Jersey cows began winning awards at local fairs and exhibitions.
Then, decades later, Street’s son, also named Arthur, was one of the first 12 charter members of the Atcheltiz Farmers’ Institute, and the property that was once the Street Family farm is now, among other things, the home of Chilliwack’s exhibition grounds.
A 20th-century Fair
As time wore on, and the area developed and changed into a bustling agricultural community, the Chilliwack Agricultural Society worked diligently year-round to enable the region’s farmers and home-economic masters a place to showoff their wares.
And by the early 1900s, the Society had purchased enough land to move the Fair permanently to a lot on Spadina Ave., and managed to expand in 1936 when they acquired more land from the City.
Always viewed as a partnership of sorts, the municipal government and the CAS worked in tangent to ensure the longevity. So, when the Society was struggling to pay its $1,699 property tax bill in 1945, a workaround was created.
On Nov. 3, 1945, the Society’s H.W. German put forth the motion, which was seconded by C.L. Worthington and carried by the membership, that “the fair board approves the running over of the fair property and buildings to the joint ownership of the City and Municipality.”
A winning solution for all involved, an agreement was made that saw Society allowed to keep year-round offices and storage space on the site, as well as exclusive and free use of the grounds to put on the annual exhibition.
Just over a decade later, when the City was looking for a way to afford putting a roof on the Coliseum, which had been built on the fairgrounds, the two groups banked on their partnership once again.
Transferring the ownership of the property back to the Society, it was then able to petition the federal government for a grant to finish the community building. After securing the grant to finish the Coliseum, the Society gifted the land back to the City.
In keeping with their commitment to facilitate the growth and innovation of the local agriculture industry, the Society used donated money to build community buildings.
“The Landing Sports Centre was built with insurance money after a few of our livestock barns were burned down in 1967,” said Oss.
Following Cowichan and Saanich as the longest-running fair in B.C., the Chilliwack Fair was moved to its current grounds in 2001, when the City decided it wanted to develop the existing site.
“As time goes on, things change,” said Oss, who added, “And it took us a bit to adjust, but the (current) site has nice, new buildings and has overall been good.”
Moving locations has also increased attendance, says Oss. “When we were at the old site, attendance was around 15,000. Last year we had 37,000 visit.”
And more than just the Fair’s location has changed.
“The demographics of attendees of fairs has significantly changed over the years,” said Saw. “The role of the fair has changed to educating people on the importance of buying locally.”
“Not everyone grows up on a farm now—that’s not the norm for most of our population,” added Oss. “Now we have more families coming who want to see the animals as this is their chance to see animals they don’t normally get a chance to see.”
The fair is also “quite educational, but presented in a way that’s fun for the whole family. Our goal is to include everyone in the community and all aspects of life.
“Time goes on, but we want to keep all our heritage aspects, (yet) include new areas, too,” continued Oss. “This year we have an artists corner that I think is pretty cool, and a local Sto:lo group … is putting up a big tee-pee as we want to be inclusive of all aspects of the community, including our first nations.”
However, besides the contests, shows, and vendors, Oss says it is, and always has been, because of the local volunteers that Chilliwack even has a fair.
“We have hundreds of people from 22 different community groups on our list. Last year I estimated over 5,000 volunteer hours went into the Fair,” Oss explained. “If we didn’t have the community volunteers to do it, we wouldn’t have a fair.”
To learn more about Chilliwack’s 146th annual Fair, please visit ChilliwackFair.com.