A group of interested people of Hay Township formed the Hay Branch Agricultural Society in the early 1860’s to hold an agricultural fair in 1864 at the fairgrounds which were situated at the north-western end of the village of Zurich. At this time encouragement was received from the Provincial Government to organize fairs throughout the province. A local fair was a place for residents to meet friends and neighbours, for local farmers to exhibit the produce from their gardens, orchards and fields to see who could grow the largest potato or pumpkin or who had the best apples, pears, plums, grapes, etc. Fairs encouraged farmers to plant “clean” seeds to produce good crops of grain and to produce the best in their various livestock breeds. The early livestock shows consisted of many breeds of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs and poultry that were raised in the area. Farm women also competed at fairs by demonstrating their skills in baking and needlework. The early fairs had many exciting events for the children as well. For weeks the children would save their pennies for treats at the fair, for rides on the merry-go-round or ferris wheel, or to try their luck on the games of skill and chance.
In 1904, land was purchased in Hay Township east of the village of Zurich along Highway 84 for the fairgrounds. Here a two storey structure known as the “Show Palace” was built to hold the flower, grain, vegetable and fruit exhibits on the ground floor and the baking and needlework exhibits on the second floor. Later the school children’s art and craft exhibits were also displayed on the second floor.
Information about the early fairs is not available as records had not been saved. Record books are available from 1933 to the present time. The Directors of the 1930’s and 1940’s worked very hard to present an interesting number of events for fairgoers. There were horse races, bingos, dances, parades, plays and other entertainment. A big attraction at the early fairs was the local brass band that led the parade and also entertained fairgoers throughout the day. Also music was played outside on loud speakers supplied by Harry Hess who wired the “Show Palace” each year at fair time.
Directors also improved the appearance of the grounds by planting trees, levelling the track and the rest of the property. Horsemen who loved to race their prize drivers said that the Zurich tract was the best track in this part of Ontario. The horse shows have always attracted many spectators. In 1944 a jumping class for saddle horses was added to the prize list. Many local lads competed in this class and there was always a crowd of spectators to cheer them on. The various horse shows over the years continue to be an important feature of the annual fair.
Ride On, Ride On – fairgoers listened and watched as MC Tory Gregg directed drivers and riders in the horse shows and Line Up as each entry waited for the judge to direct them into position to receive their prizes.
In 1945, a school department for elementary school children with classes for art, crafts, penmanship, etc. was added to the prize list. Today the school department is one of the main interests of the annual fair.
In 1948 Associate Lady Directors – Mrs. Wes Merner, Mrs. Ted Steinbach, and Mrs. Francis Kipper – were appointed to help place exhibits in the Show Palace. In January 1959, Mrs. Anne Flaxbard & Mrs. Liz Mack attended the annual meeting to discuss some of the concerns of the women’s section of the fair. They were both elected as Directors that year. Anne Flaxbard was still a women’s or Homecraft Director until 2002. Today the women are in charge of the Homecraft and School sections of the fair.
After several years of deciding where to hold the fair, the fair was moved to the Zurich Community Centre and Arena in 1958, when it was held on a Saturday & Monday in late September. The Agricultural Society purchased additional property adjacent to the arena for the erection of livestock sheds and space for midway rides and other attractions. For 12 years, from 1958 to 1969, Monday evening indoor horse shows were held in the arena. These shows drew crowds that packed the arena. Of course the people came to listen to MC Tory Gregg. After artificial ice was installed in the arena other plans had to be made concerning where to hold the horse show. Today the horse shows are held outdoors on Saturday & Sunday of the fair weekend.
In 1964, the Agricultural Society celebrated its Centennial and gates were erected to mark this special anniversary. A centennial queen contest was held and this continued as the Queen of the Fair contest until 1993.
In 1976 the fair dates were changed to a weekend in July and it is held the 4th weekend at the present time.
In 1992, ownership of the property east of Zurich changed from the Hay Branch Agricultural Society to the Zurich Agricultural Society when Union Gas put in a large line to service the village. In 2003, this property was given to the Municipality of Bluewater by the Zurich Agricultural Society for the construction of a new arena and community centre. The property was donated with the understanding that the Agricultural Society has the use of the land and buildings for their annual fair and some other functions of the Society.
Throughout the years, the Zurich Agricultural Society has sponsored 4-H Club Shows, Field Crop Competitions, Talent Programs, Dances, Magic Shows, Baby Shows, Arm-Wrestling Competitions, Fiddlers’ Jamboree, and Games & Crafts events for children.
For 151 years local rural & urban residents of this community have volunteered their time to present interesting and exciting events for the annual fair. On behalf of the Zurich Agricultural Society Directors – past and present, I wish to thank everyone who has contributed to the success of the Zurich Fair. The present Directors hope that area residents will continue to volunteer so that you will be able to “Come to the Fair”. Hope to see you here at the Bluewater Community Centre on July 24, 25, 26, 2015.
WRITTEN BY MARGARET DEICHERT, SECRETARY/TREASURER