Always a Good Fair
By Rita Maisel
A frequent request is to write about the Cavalier County Fair, and there are memories of doing so on several occasions, but none of the earlier stories have surfaced in spite of diligent searching. Writing about some of the many projects B. E. Groom was associated with for last week renewed that search both in my mind and in the minds of readers. The first county fair in North America was held in Nova Scotia in the 1700s and was modeled after similar celebrations in Scotland and England. The first county fair in the United States was held in Massachusetts in 1807, became known as the Berkshire Fair and, according to the internet, is still an annual event.
Early fairs were termed agricultural fairs and offered a chance to display agricultural products and livestock. Settlers moving west from southern Canadian provinces and northeastern states were familiar with the concept of an agricultural fair long before they set foot in Dakota Territory. Those same settlers also had a strong core of local residents who loved horses and horse racing. Some of the earliest Cavalier County Courier newspaper stories tell about horse races on Spruce Street in Langdon (now 9th Avenue or Highway 5) even before the railroad reached our area. It took many horses to build the railroad with the last link in the line to Langdon completed October 24, 1887. The workers were paid off and construction workers used their salaries to purchase horses to plow land they may not yet have had title to owning.
Most will have heard the advertising for the Pembina County Fair as the oldest continuous fair in our area, but pre-1900 issues of the Cavalier County Courier Democrat (the oldest remaining copies in our county) also mention an agricultural fair held at Langdon with crops exhibited and horse races held. Reading about that endeavor years ago I was surprised to find my own grandfather’s name associated with an agricultural fair in Langdon in the mid 1890s. From family stories I already knew that my grandmother’s brother, the first Jerry Kaercher, had been on the board for the original Pembina County Fair. Relatives were happy to tell stories of how Uncle Jerry remained on the Pembina board “forever” with grandsons taking his place in more modern times.
Reading the stories in both the Courier Democrat and Cavalier County Republican as well as listening to stories offered by elderly fair-goers was entertaining, and this week I want to share some of the highlights of those who attended “every single year.” They may not agree on all details, but their memories are delightful. One of those attendees was Dick Forkner, who also composed the story of the fair that appears in the Langdon Centennial Book. Dick was born the night of the 1909 May cyclone which destroyed many parts of Langdon. He talked about his parents carrying him to the very first Cavalier County Fair held August 3-5, 1909, and wanted listeners to know that he had attended every fair until it closed. No one would argue because there were many others who also wanted to tell us they had “never missed the fair.” Some might be reading this column today.
The Langdon Jubilee book of 1963 says that the idea of forming a Cavalier County Fair Association grew out of a public meeting held in Langdon in 1908. The group hoped to sell memberships in the proposed fair association and with those funds purchase 20 acres of land from the Langdon Driving Association. The cost was $10 per share, and participation must have been unanimous because by the following year they owned the land, had built a race track and a grandstand. A deed for some of this property indicates they also purchased land that had been owned by B. E. Groom, who became the executive secretary of the association and was known from 1909 until 1937 as the fair manager. In 1908 Groom was County Supt. of Schools and also headed the Cavalier County Immigration Association. When Groom and Mark I. Forkner purchased the Cavalier County Republican a short time later, there was a span of four years when Judge Bleakley managed the county fair. The county corn contest were held in this early period of fair exhibits with each rural school raising and exhibiting their best ears of corn.
Carl Wild was 7 years old when the fair opened in 1909. He was downsizing in the 1980s and had “inherited” the original Cavalier County Fair books. He mentioned one of his brothers had died, and he took his brother’s place on the final fair board. This collection consisted of the original records of the $10 fees charged to become members of the Fair Association, original handwritten minutes (some hard to read) and many other documents. Carl gave those items to me with a request that I type up the minutes on original County Fair Stationery (a task never completed) so they would be easier to read. I was also instructed to take fair souvenirs and memorabilia out to the Museum for display. Some of the material went to the museum that summer, and when we were busy with centennial books, the rest were also deposited there. Museum visitors were not interested in reading old hand-written minutes, but they were sure the certificates of membership in the association must be worth a lot of money by now – especially if they found one with their family name included.
The membership certificates had been a source of controversy from the very beginning in part because if your ancestor had deposited $10 in the fund to build the fairgrounds, he or she would get in free. Annual association meetings were held and that “free admission” passed after death to the purchaser’s widow and then to children and grandchildren. Fair board members stood at the entrance to be sure non-members did not get in free. Children bragged about going under the fence. Meals, seats in the grandstand, rides and other fees still had to be paid plus transportation to the fairgrounds from all parts of the county and southern Manitoba.
The busiest person had to be secretary B. E. Groom who, during the winter months, negotiated with midway firms, sideshows, guest entertainers, local groups who would run stands serving meals, bands, horse racing enthusiasts, talent groups, airplane pilots, and, in some eras, baseball teams. One of the best remembered acts was Tom McGoey from Grand Forks who brought his airplane, first to the fair at Park River (Cavalier County residents rode the train to see if McGoey could get off the ground), and then to Langdon where reportedly mechanics worked on the aircraft, and after some false starts McGoey took off on August 11, 1911. He did fly briefly, and many readers will have seen and smiled over pictures of McGoey’s wreck. Other daring pilots were invited over the years, and many area residents got their first airplane ride at the fair. More about fair special events later.
Fairs need good people in many positions, and many deserve to be mentioned. One of those was the late Hester Wells who had charge of many unusual fair features, but I remember her in one of the exhibit buildings possibly with prize-winning handicrafts, baking, flowers, quilts and things of interest to women. Another lady who spent year after year at the fair was Emma Hahn- usually found in an exhibit building arranging exhibits or maybe doing some of the judging. Yes, they tasted the pickles, the angel food cakes and many kinds of bread. I am sure Gladys Shanks and Emma may have had charge of the school exhibits. Only children from rural schools could have their best penmanship, art work and other items exhibited. Since you also had to live on a farm to belong to 4-H in that era, those same bright school children had their 4-H projects in another building, and the best went on to the state fair. Those in town schools were envious. Near that row of buildings were the pens and barns for poultry, lambs, pigs, and prize cattle and horses. The larger animals would be paraded in front of the grandstand, judged and special honors awarded to their owners.
A little farther away were the barns for the race horses with harness racing a big draw for fair-goers. Afternoons were for horse racing, and fair-goers had many stories to tell about the betting that went on (sometimes not so quietly) which was at times legal and at other times not. The races at Hamilton each year are a carry-over from that era with many of today’s races featuring the same families as owners, trainers and drivers.
In the evening there might be choirs, radio personalities, dancers, nationally known people like LuluBelle and Scotty or Minnie Pearl with the price tag on her hat of the day, and sometimes fireworks in the sky and also in the stands. When you got to the midway there were kiddie rides, loop the loop, a ferris wheel, bumper cars, the merry-go-round, and dozens of others. You could have your fortune told or a specialist would read your mind. Some might guess your weight. There were booths to show what a good marksman you were with the goal of winning a kewpie doll or maybe a teddy bear. Boys liked a machine that allowed you to operate a claw to pick up money and ended up spending more than they picked up. Most years you could win a plaid blanket or a ceramic figure at bingo and for a fee could see shrunken heads from the Pacific Islands or Hitler’s Brothers (the last were trained skunks).
Two of the long-running food booths were operated by the ladies from St. Alphonsus and the Langdon Methodist Church. The tie-in for the Methodists was that the 1909 cyclone had destroyed the Methodist Church and parsonage along with many other buildings in Langdon so they started with the fair to help their building fund. That stand became known for their hamburgers (with smell or without – onions) as well as homemade slices of pie with ice cream- a feast for 25 cents for hungry visitors. Because of friends who attended that church our family never got to eat at the St. Alphonsus booth although we heard the group had similar menus.
The Langdon book says there were fair weddings in 1935 and 1938 but researching local fair weddings from a relative’s scrapbook we found clippings from at least six of these occasions. The couples could ask to be chosen for this event, and the winner received many gifts, small by today’s standards, but very needed in the era of the Depression years. Included might be a photograph of the couple, sometimes the groom’s suit or his shirt and tie, hairstyling by a Langdon beautician, bags of groceries from stores, household items of many kinds, probably a free movie pass to the Roxy after it was built and sometimes a ring for the groom from the jewelry store – possibly the jeweler had already sold them the rings for the bride. The couple chose their own attendants, but often the flower girls were little girls known for their cuteness and sometimes the ring bearer appeared to also be unrelated to the couple but related to people “in charge”. Those events were well attended. Mrs. Wells arranged the flowers for these weddings with blooms from the gardens of the Morden mayor and her neighbors.
The last fair was the same year as the 1963 Jubilee Celebration in Langdon, with that event an all-out extravaganza held in June. The fair board had been negotiating for funds to repair some of the buildings and spruce up the grounds. Whether that would require a special election or not continues to be debated. Forkner’s story says that the fair board voted to dissolve the Association and does not give the date. Other stories list that the fair board turned the matter over to the county commissioners who sold the land and property with the money going to the County General Fund. Extenuating circumstances at the time included the closing of the last of the rural schools, the incoming ICBN workers followed by the ABM and PAR sites. In all this mix the Cavalier County Fair became history – happy memories of a time past.