It wasn’t just our Mother who loved the Perth Fair. Yes, she spent months preparing for those brief few hours each Labour Day weekend, at the fairgrounds, along Rogers Road, but the rest of the family also felt a sense of excitement, rivalled only by Christmas morning!
The day had arrived! The day that we would drive into Perth, park at our Aunt Pat and Uncle Peter Stafford’s house on Halton Street, walk up the road, and enter the gates. By the time we got to the entrance, and Mother showed her Exhibitor’s Pass, we were bursting with anticipation. I knew that Mother would be heading straight for the Homecraft Building to check on her entries, but instead, I chose to slow down, look around, and take it all in.
She glanced back, waved, and then rushed down the well worn path, through the midway, and up to the buildings. I stood with my back against the side of the Lion’s Hall, and glanced around. There was so much to see that I didn’t know where to look first. Being a kid, my eyes naturally gravitated toward the rides.
They were all spinning and whirring, and the bright sun was bouncing off of all of the shiny metal. There was a Ferris wheel, a Scrambler, a Tilt-a-Whirl, and the Bullet. The Swings took up a lot of room, and so they were set up to the right of the buildings. I could see four kiddy rides: a Merry-Go-Round, Baby Airplanes going round in a circle, Ladybugs, and a Little Red Caboose making its way along a tiny round track.
Once my eyes had taken in the rides, my senses turned to all of the sweet aromas of the Fair. Right across from where I was standing was the Lion’s Club ladies’ booth, and I could smell their fresh, homemade hamburgers, and the savory scent of fried sweet onions. Straight ahead of me, just past the entrance was a vendor swirling a paper funnel around and around, in a circle, pink cotton candy swelling out from the stick, as he twirled it inside the machine.
Next to the cotton candy stand, was a man selling corn on the cob, and several people were waiting in line. Folks were holding their cobs by a short wooden stick that had been plunged right into the big end of the cob, and there were two or three separate unwrapped pounds of butter set on the edge of the counter of the vending cart. The butter had already taken on a curved shape as people spun their cobs, and then salted them.
Next to the corn vendor was the hot dog cart. A tall, lanky man was grilling hot dogs on one side, and the finished dogs were spinning slowly around glistening on the grill. On the other side of the wagon, a younger lad was piercing hot dogs with long slender sticks, dipping them in batter, and placing them into a big deep fryer. The cart had a low shelf with mustard, ketchup and relish and some diced onions for people to dress their hot dogs.
There were two more food carts, so I strolled a bit farther down the midway toward the buildings. The first cart held a popcorn machine, even bigger than the one that I’d seen at the Soper Theatre in Smiths Falls. It was a large, metal machine, painted red, and the popcorn was spilling out of the top into a big glass case. The vendor was lifting it out with a bright, silver scoop, and placing it into small white paper bags that were decorated with red stripes and a clown’s face.
The last food vendor in front of the Commerce building, was making snow cones. There was a square, metal and glass machine and an old man in a dirty apron was pouring ice cubes into a big funnel on the top. There were white cone-shaped paper cups stacked in a tall dispenser attached to the side of the machine and when he cranked the handle on the opposite side snow came out of an opening at the front. There were clear plastic squeeze bottles lined up on a shelf, at the front of the machine, and each was labeled with a different flavour: cherry, orange, lemon-lime, grape and blueberry.
I’m not sure if I was really hungry or if it was just from seeing and smelling all of the different kinds of food, and I thought that I might buy either a small bag of popcorn, or a blueberry snow cone. I dug deep into my pocket, and pulled out my money. I had exactly twelve dollars, and my money had to last for the whole weekend, and this was just the first day. I needed to save some, because my friends Susan and Jane Munro, Patti Jordan, and Debbie Majaury, would be coming into town later, and I’d want to go on the rides with them. Because the rides were $1.25 each I had to be careful not to spend money on food, so I stuffed the bills and change back in my pocket, and kept walking, taking in all the sights along the way.
Photo: 1967 Old Home week, David Bromley (clown on the left) Fred Mather (clown on the right)
I heard a man’s voice yelling at me, and it startled me so much that I jumped. I looked toward the man timidly, and he was in a game booth, right behind a food cart, and he had a table set up with some wooden milk bottles, stacked in a pyramid. He had a baseball in his hand, and called to me to come and knock over the milk bottles. It scared me so much that I just walked away. I wasn’t used to strangers. We knew everyone out on the Third Line, and lots of the folks in Perth as well. None of the people we knew ever yelled at us like that, right out of the blue, and certainly not a stranger. I walked quickly away, not looking back.
The people that operated the games made me nervous. They had a lot of tattoos, which was something we never saw in those days. Many of them were a bit too aggressive. I’d played some of those games before, and although I won, I didn’t get the big stuffed bears and dogs that were hanging along the top and sides of their booth.
I’ll never forget the first time I played a game. The back wall of the booth had four or five rows of balloons blown up, and they were stuck to the wall. I thought I’d have no problem hitting one of the balloons, so when the man yelled at me to come and play, I thought it would be a sure thing.
He said it was $1.00 for three darts so I handed him my money, and he handed me three darts. Sure enough, the balloons weren’t that far away, and I hit and burst all three of them.
He reached down under the table, into a big cardboard box, and handed me a mangy looking stuffed snake. It was about six inches long, and had an orange felt tongue, badly stitched onto its mouth, and two black felt eyes, that weren’t even lined up.
I looked up at the big stuffed bears and asked him why I hadn’t won one of those. He said that my prize was a ‘small’ and if I wanted a ‘large’ prize I’d have to play and win, trading up to a ‘medium’ then win a certain number of ‘mediums’ and then I’d finally get one of the big bears. Holy cow! Talk about disappointed! What kind of scam was that? Folks from Bathurst Township were used to other people dealing with them fairly. This game seemed like out and out trickery, and I wasn’t very impressed. Still, I didn’t want to tell Mother that I’d just wasted my money, so I kept it to myself. I didn’t even want to tell my friends that I’d been fooled like that. I just felt stupid.
I walked by all of the other game booths, and watched people play. Some folks walking around the fairgrounds were actually carrying one of the great big stuffed animals. I wondered to myself how many of those mangy stuffed snakes they’d had to trade up in order to finally claim the big prize.
Photo: Perth Fair 1956 – L to R – Wanda Mahon, Bette Duncan, Mary Douglas, Marsha Ann Nichols, Heather Murphy, Bill Redman (Bill operated the concession stands for the March Midway)
I walked past the last game in the midway, and there was a rough-looking older woman, holding a bunch of short, wooden fishing rods, with small black metal squares on the ends. There was a round aluminum tub of water on the ground, and floating along the surface of the water were dozens of little yellow plastic ducks, and they each had ‘S’, ‘M’ or ‘L’, marked on their heads in black marker – small, medium and large I guessed. I must have been staring too long at the tub of ducks because she called out at me to come and play. She said everyone is a winner. Not to be tricked again, I asked her what the prizes were, and she showed me. She didn’t have huge stuffed animals, but it was only fifty cents to play, and you could fish in the tub until you caught a duck.
I dug into my pocket, and pulled out two quarters, gave them to her, and she handed me a fishing rod. By this time, after watching other folks play for a few minutes, I had figured out that the heavy black square on the end of the rod was a magnet, and that each of the yellow plastic ducks must have a magnet inside so they would stick to the line. I looked down into the tub, and I could see that there were about forty or fifty ducks marked with an ‘S’, maybe ten marked with a ‘M’ and there were only three that I could see marked with an ‘L’. I took my time, and positioned my rod right over one of the ‘L’ ducks and plunged it into the water. Wouldn’t you know it, just my luck, the magnet had stuck to a duck with an ‘S’, the lady pulled it out of the tub, and handed me a prize. It was a 45 rpm record in a paper sleeve. I thanked her, and looked at the label. It was the Shirelles’ song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” Hmmm. Well, the record was a few years old, but we had a record player at home, and some plastic adapters to play 45s, so this didn’t seem like such a bad prize after all. Not bad for fifty cents!
The late August sun was working its way up into the sky, and I thought it must be close to noon. I was starting to feel hot, and decided to head up to the buildings, and cool off inside. The exhibit halls at the Perth Fair were grey metal arched buildings, with straight walls, and rounded roofs. One of the buildings was known as the Commerce building, and it had lots of different vendors selling their products and services. The other building was the Homemaking building, and this is where you could find exhibits of sewing and fancy work, vegetables, flowers, canned goods, maple products, and of course home baking. It’s also where you could find our Mother!
As I walked closer to the building, there were two tables set up, right outside of the entrance. One person was raffling off a quilt made by Mrs. Bert Frizzell, and the other was selling tickets for the annual draw to win a baby beef. Sure enough, as I approached the main door, I spotted Mother, standing along one of the baking counters, talking to Evelyn Bothwell, and Margaret Campbell. Mrs. Willard Shaw and Mrs. Archie Ferguson were working at the next counter, arranging some of the craft displays. The ladies all nodded and smiled at me, knowing that I was one of Mother’s ‘helpers’, responsible for carrying her baking in to the building each year, the evening before the judging took place. I usually had a meringue pie on my lap, in the car, on the way into Perth, and there were countless trays of muffins, loaves, cakes, pies, cookies, bread, rolls and biscuits to carry, carefully, into the building each year. Along with all of those tasty treats, she would also enter photography, flowers, vegetables and sewing, but it was the home baking competition where her talents shone.
Mother spotted me, smiled excitedly, and waved me over to the counter. “Your Mother won the most points in the baking category again!” Mrs. Bothwell exclaimed, and the ladies pointed out all of the red ribbons and tags, behind the glass counter. Mother beamed, and said that Mrs. Bell from Balderson had come very close to beating her, and that she’d have to stay sharp for next year!
There were also many other folks who won prizes at the Fair that year as well. There was a gate prize each year, and the ticket number would be drawn, called out, and the winner received ten pounds of Balderson Cheese. Now who wouldn’t want that! They estimated that the crowd that year was around 15,000 and I’m not sure who won the gate prize, but someone went home that night with a big slab of the best cheese in the county.
One of the most popular events was the harness racing, and the winner was Eddie Norris of Perth. There was also a Tractor Rodeo – contestants had to drive tractors through an obstacle course pulling wagons and manure spreaders. In the 14-18 yrs. division some of our local lads had a good showing. Bill Poole came 1st, Allan Lowry was 2nd, and Brian Miller of Drummond Centre came 3rd. In the 19 yrs. and over division Mervin Conboy of Maberly took first place, with Jack James from Middleville taking 2nd, and our neighbour from the Third Line, Wayne Conboy taking 3rd.
Donald Hossie, another neighbour, was the top winner in the seed and grain competition, and Mrs. Robert Moodie won the Sewing and Fancy work class with no less than 23 firsts! Mrs. John Auchterlonie, also from the Third Line, took top honours for her vegetables and fruits, and Mrs. Isobel Kent came first in the Flower competition.
Ray Poole was the winner of the best bale of first cut hay, and our neighbour, John Miller of Glen Tay, won for the best dairy cattle. John’s sister Ruth Miller, won for the best senior calf. Other winners from the Third Line included Paul, Dale and Jane Brady, winners for their 4H dairy cattle entries. In some of the other 4H competitions local lads Alfred Bowes and Brian Miller, John Miller, and Linda Bell of Balderson were winners.
Everyone enjoyed the light and heavy Horse Shows and the livestock competitions. That was the first year that Charolais cattle were introduced into the mix, and so it was quite special to see them in the arena.
My good friends came to the fairgrounds that Saturday afternoon, and we had a wonderful time, riding the Scrambler, and the Tilt-a-Whirl, screaming, laughing, and then feeling dizzy on our walk back down the ramp, at the end of the ride. We were all a little nervous about riding The Bullet, because while one of the two cars was right side-up, the opposite car was up-side-down. We stood there quite a while watching other people riding, and screaming, and laughing, before we got up enough nerve to try it out ourselves. I didn’t really like being upside-down, and some of my change fell out of my pocket, onto the ground below. Luckily, one of our neighbours Linda Brady saw it fall, and she stood there and waited, until the ride was finished, and hung onto my change for me.
As always, the Grandstand shows at the Perth Fair were great entertainment for people of all ages! Beautiful late summer evenings, clear skies, all the rides lit up, the scents of delicious food in the air, and wonderful live music, made those nights magical!
Everyone always came out to see the famous Trans Canada Hell Drivers!
Along with the Grandstand entertainment, one of the highlights of the Fair that year, was the Old Time Fiddlers competition on Sunday, and the musically-gifted Dawson Girdwood walked away with the top prize. Barb Closs from Lanark came second in the step-dancing competition, although we thought she should have come first, she was such a talented performer. Watching the fiddling and step-dancing was a memorable finish to the Labour Day weekend.
The last night of the Fair, as always, was bittersweet. We knew that it was almost over for another year. I walked through the midway one more time, all the way to the Lion’s Hall. The ladies in the Lioness Booth were packing up their big jars of mustard and relish, and some of the nearby vendors were starting to clean their food carts, and take them apart.
Some diehard fans of the Fair were still playing games; taking a last spin at the Crown and Anchor wheel, or throwing one last pitch at Skeet ball, not wanting the fun to end. Although it was getting late, there were still a handful of people on the rides laughing and screaming. The good-natured folks running the rides didn’t seem to mind and they gave these last few stragglers extra long rides.
As I walked back up through the midway, I took one last look behind me, as if I wanted to freeze the moment in my memory, then I reluctantly climbed into the car. Dad started up the engine, and drove through the side entrance, onto Cockburn Street.
It was a wonderful fair! I sat in the back seat of the car, tired from the busy weekend, as Mother chatted excitedly to Dad, already planning her exhibits for next year’s fair.
School would be starting soon, and the days would grow cooler, and the sun wouldn’t feel quite as strong as it did for the Fair. In the weeks to come we’d bring our jackets down from the attic, and spend our evenings doing homework, instead of riding our bikes up and down the Third Line. As the daylight hours dwindled down we’d begin to see the onset of nature’s paintbrush, and its random strokes of yellow and orange, dotted across the maple trees in our yard. This would be our last taste of summer for a long while, and what could possibly be a more fitting way to finish off the season, than a glorious sunny weekend spent at the Perth Fair!
This story is an excerpt from:
The story ‘A Day at the Fair’, original publication in:
“Lanark County Calendar: Four Seasons on the Third Line” ISBN 978-0-9877026-30
some photos from: ‘Perth Remembered’, and from ‘Perth Fair’