Fall fairs have been a community tradition since the concept of agricultural fairs was brought to Canada by the early British settlers. A familiar refrain for many people in British Columbia at this time of year, is “I’ll see you at the fair”.
Fairs have been held throughout the ages and some trace the heritage to the eastern Mediterranean before the birth of Christ. Both the Old and New Testaments refer to fairs. They were initially part trade show, part feast and festival, and part spectacle. The British are credited with making the connection to agriculture and agricultural fairs were born.
The first agricultural fairs in Canada were in Nova Scotia in the 1700s and gradually they spread to Upper Canada and then west as new settlers arrived in what are now the western provinces. Because they are typically held in the autumn of the year they are commonly called “Fall Fairs” although some of the larger ones are described as exhibitions, for example the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE, Vancouver), the Interior Provincial Exhibition (IPE, Armstrong), and Bulkley Valley Exhibition (Smithers).
The first recorded fall fair in BC was in Victoria in October of 1861. The Saanich Fair is considered the oldest continuously running agricultural fair in Western Canada. It started in 1888 and is now in its 144th year. In 1910, the Provincial Agricultural Fairs Association was established. It is now known as the BC Association of Fairs and Exhibitions and currently has a listing of 46 fairs (not all are “fall” fairs, a few are held earlier in the year). Not every “fall fair” is a member of the association so it is reasonable to assume that the total number is higher. A 2013 study indicates that fall fairs have significant social and economic impact for BC communities.
I have attended many fall fairs, large and small, throughout the province. When I was a child, free PNE tickets were distributed in BC schools and we all hoped that a trip to Vancouver might become part of our summer holidays. In high school my best friend won first prize for her cake at the Salmon Arm Fall Fair. I once assisted in judging the handicrafts at the Chase and District Fall Fair. I am always drawn to the food and agricultural exhibits – the award-winning produce, the heritage vegetables and fruits, the 4-H members showing the animals they have raised, the baking, the preserves and flower displays.
It’s common to find educational exhibits such as historical presentations; interactive displays of how food is produced; delicious treats to sample; and special events and entertainment. Every community has different crops and foods to showcase so it is a wonderful way to celebrate the local harvest and learn more about food history in BC. Check the BC Fairs Schedule listings or your local community calendar for a fair near you.