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The Brant County Court House was the scene of the very first Brant County Agricultural Society meeting in 1854. The society was made up of representatives from the townships and the town of Paris. The show, was held originally on the land which is in front of this building, which is now a park.







Published in the Burford Advance, October, 2020

(Copyright © 2010 – 2020 by Clayton Barker)


Prior to There Being a Show at Burford:


Burford had belonged to Oxford County and though it did not have its own Agricultural Exhibition until six years after the formation of the County of Brant, in 1853, it would have been however affiliated with an early Agricultural Society in Oxford, perhaps, with a Township representative on that Ag. Society.


     The earliest agricultural Society in Brant was known as the “Brant County Agricultural Society” with a Board of Directors having members representing each of the Townships. The first annual meeting was held in 1854 and the first County Exhibition was held at the Town of Brantford on the Court House square that same year. There was only one Agricultural Exhibition held in the County of Brant, at first, and all the Townships of the County pooled their resources. By the way, in the 19th century, what we refer to now as a “Fair” was known as a “Show” or “agricultural exhibition.”


     Each County also had a Director to represent the county on the Provincial Agricultural Association, responsible for the Provincial Exhibition. The Provincial Exhibition started about 1846 at Toronto. In the years to follow, Provincial Exhibitions had been held in Kingston, Cobourg, Hamilton and London. In 1857 the Brant County Agricultural Society hosted the Provincial Exhibition and because of that, there wasn’t a County Exhibition that year. A new exhibition grounds was created for the Provincial Exhibition in the present Terrace Hill area of the city and for many years after the Provincial Show, the County Shows were held there until 1867 when another exhibition ground was established in West Brant area of the city, at what is now known as Cockshutt Park.


1982 sketch showing the J. & H. VanKooten shop at #106 King Street (now partly demolished / removed). The former Hearne’s Hall building (second floor as shown) was originally located to the right of this site and served as a community hall where some exhibits for the Burford Agricultural Exhibition were displayed, between 1859 and 1869. (Sketch by Clayton Barker)


1859 – 1869 Alternating Township Show:


The first Burford Fair was held Tuesday October 12th, 1859 in Claremont (now Burford) at the east end of King Street, on what was the Jacob Yeigh farm. The year previous to this, in 1858, the original Brant County Agricultural Society had split up into an East Riding and a West Riding “Electoral District Agricultural Society,” of which, Burford Township was part of the “West Riding.” The reason for the split was because of an amendment to the Provincial Agricultural Act of 1856. The “Brant County Show” alternated between the Provincial Exhibition grounds, Terrace Hill, and the Paris exhibition grounds for a few years then the first annual “West Brant Electoral District Agricultural Show” was held in the Town of Brantford on the former Provincial Exhibition Grounds, in 1860.


     The Burford Township Agricultural Society was formed in the year 1858, while it was still affiliated with the West Brant Electoral District Agricultural Society. The Burford Township Show (a.k.a. The Burford Township Agricultural Exhibition) alternated between the village of Claremont and the village of Sydenham (now Cathcart) between 1859 and 1869. In 1865 the Burford Township show and the Oakland Township show were combined but was said to be a “decided failure.” In 1867, the year of confederation, once again the Electoral Districts were changed and therefore the East Riding and West Riding Electoral Districts were changed to the “South Brant” and “North Brant” Electoral Districts, with Burford being affiliated with the South Brant District. The first South Brant exhibition was held at the new “Brantford Riding and Driving park” (later called “Cockshutt Park”) at the present west end of the City of Brantford.


     Up until 1869, the Burford Township show at Claremont was always held on the same grounds as it started, at the east end of King Street on the Jacob Yeigh property, while the Militia Drill Hall nearby was utilized as an exhibition hall (located in the north-west corner of Yeigh’s North-west field). Additional exhibit space was located in the “Burford Community Hall” which was James Hearne’s hall located only two doors west of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. The dignitary’s meal was held in what was the “Claremont House” hotel, which is now the Log House restaurant.


     When the township show alternated with Sydenham, which had been the original township “seat of Government,” the dignitary’s meal was held in the Vanderlip’s (Dorman’s) Hotel while the show was located at a farm field nearby.


The Vanderlip’s / Dorman’s Hotel, at Sydenham (Cathcart) where the very first Burford Township Municipal council was held and where the Burford Agricultural Society held their meetings and sometimes the dignitary’s meal, on alternating years, between 1859 and 1869. (sketch copyright © 1988-2020 by Clayton Barker)


A photo of boy and a dog (which appears to be very comfortable), supposedly taken in a tent at the c1880 Burford Township Agricultural Exhibition. (Photo Clayton Barker’s personal collection).

A Brief Bit About Burford’s Annual Exhibition

PART 2: The last exhibition to be held on the King Street property was in 1869, two days after Prince Arthur and the Governor General of Canada, Sir John Young, passed through this area on their way to Long Point.


1870 Show in a Swamp:


It was agreed at the annual meeting of the Society that the 1870 Burford Township exhibition would be held on the King Street property; however, the directors were late that year in making final arrangements to hold the fair. Though the King Street property was available, the directors picked a completely different place near the village of Burford, but was said to be a "mud-hole". A temporary building, without any windows at all was hastily put up as an exhibit hall.


A photo of boy and a dog (which appears to be very comfortable), supposedly taken in a tent at the c1880 Burford Township Agricultural Exhibition. (Photo Clayton Barker’s personal collection).



1871 Harley, at the Annual Show:


In 1871 it was decided that the annual exhibition needed a fresh new start in a fresh new location, with new ideas and new directors, so it went to Harley. Harley had become the “seat of government”. The annual “show,” as it was known, remained at Harley for 22 years, during which time it had been situated in two locations: the first site was east of the main corner on a 4-acre parcel owned later by the Bennett family, then the second location was a 7-acre property north of the village of Harley where a “Crystal Palace” exhibition hall was erected.


     The annual “Harley Show” exhibition was held on the 4-acre fairgrounds for nine years and this was the first official Burford Township Agricultural Society fairground. This site came complete with a blacksmith shop, located near the general store, and the Ag. Society continued to lease it to a blacksmith for $2 per year for eight years. There was the stipulation that the blacksmith couldn’t operate his business on the “Show Day(s).” The local hotel, on the north-east corner of the village, was where the Agricultural Society and the Township Council held their meetings and the annual exhibition dignitary’s meal was held there, as well.


     The Harley Show was renown throughout the Province as an event where entertainment consisted of actual fist-fights, whiskey tents and drunken brawls. Gambling and wheels of (mis) fortune were common place and "fakirs" (scam artists) were allowed into their grounds.


     Violence turned to major-league property damage and one time a fist fight broke out in a whiskey tent and the lanterns were overturned and lit the tent and most of the fair on fire. It spread to neighbouring buildings and it was said that nearly "half the town was put to flames."


     Guns were also common at such celebrations and events and throughout the usual sounds of the midway and the carnival barkers, could be heard the sounds of gun-shots fired off by well-inebriated fair-goers. Stray bullets buzzed off into neighbouring properties etc. and one time, a bullet whizzed past a wagon driven by a woman from Princeton. Apparently, the bullet came close to connecting to human or horse flesh!! However, it bade its merry way farther beyond them, but killed a dog that was in a neighbouring yard.


     You have to realize also, that for the first few years, Burford Township was not serviced by a railway so those attending the exhibitions would have to get there by either horse-power or foot power. When the Brantford, Norfolk and Port Burwell Railway was partially completed in 1876, it literally put Harley and the Harley Show on the map. People from far and wide could now take a train to the show and the railway would put special “excursion” trains in service during the show, from Brantford.


     The exhibition at Harley got such a bad reputation that one year the press was refused admission to the fair by the President because he didn’t “give a darn if the show was reported upon or not.”


     The 1875 exhibition was opened to exhibitors from across the province whereby the winning of some categories or divisions would result in a prize including entry into the Provincial fair to compete. The 1877 Harley Show exhibition was the first two-day exhibition but was also opened up to the entire world and was known as the “Harley World’s Fair.” This meant that the winners of some classes of exhibits would therefore automatically be entered into the World’s Fair, which was generally held in far off large cities such as Chicago or New York.


     The Conklin hotel burned, so a new hotel was constructed cater-corner to it, which was called the “Harley House” hotel. In order to keep the Township Council and Agricultural Society meetings (“seat of government”) at Harley, the new hotel was constructed very quickly and it came complete with a meeting hall in a separate building (now the home of the Burford Township Historical Society).


The Log House, Burford: The larger, much older section of this building was the old Claremont House Hotel of the mid-19th century. Built about 1845 by Robert Hunt, it was the scene of many dignitary meals and meetings including the dignitary’s supper for first Burford Township Agricultural Society’s Exhibition in 1859 (Photo by Clayton Barker).


The Burford Township annual Agricultural Exhibition was moved to a 7-acre property north of the Village of Harley in 1880 and the old 4-acre property in Harley was sold and the buildings purchased and moved to various places in the area. One of these buildings, which was moved by the local medical man (Dr. Wm. Chrysler) can still be seen on a farm down the road from there. The fair had been held at the 4-acre property in Harley for nine years, however more room as needed especially for the “test of speed” and a new (probably half-mile) race track.


     On the new show grounds, a so-called “Crystal Palace” was constructed (Note: this may have only been a normal-looking drive barn that just had several more windows located on the end-walls or front). The “Harley Show” or “Harley World’s Fair,” as it was referred to, was held at the new showgrounds for another thirteen years and because of the whopping crowds of about 4000 people each year, they needed another exhibit hall building, so a new 30-foot by 50-foot hall was built in 1887.


     The Canada Temperance Act was enacted by the Parliament of Canada in 1878, which provided an option for municipalities to opt-in by plebiscite to a prohibitionist scheme. It was often known as the Scott Act for its sponsor Sir Richard William Scott. It was brought in here in Burford Township and was policed especially at the fairs starting in 1886.


     By 1890, murmurings of people wanting the Burford Township fair to be moved back to the village of Burford had begun but still the show continued for two more years at Harley, and as per usual fakirs were on the grounds and bootlegged liquor was being “distributed,” which continued to fuel the fist-fights.


     The exhibition was always just a one-day event until 1877 when the first two-day fair was held in Harley. The first three-day exhibition wasn’t held until 1948, which was also the first year the event was held on a Thanksgiving weekend. The earliest date of the exhibition was September 16th and 17th in 1940 and 1941 and the latest the fair had been held was the 21st of October in the year 1870.


This is a c1912 view looking north towards the exhibition building, which was composed of about four buildings moved to this site, from around the village. of the 1912 Burford Agricultural Exhibition. (photo from Clayton Barker’s personal collection).


1893 – 1919 The new Burford Show:


At the 1893 annual Agricultural Society meeting it was voted that the fair be moved back to Burford, where it has been ever since. The politics behind the location of Agricultural Fairs was the cause of much rivalry between communities.


      Thirty-four years after the very first Burford Township Exhibition had utilized the old militia drill hall, at the east end of the village, that Drill shed was moved to the new Fairgrounds and combined with two other drive barn buildings and a hotel livery barn to become the new exhibit hall complex. This complex was utilized until 1917 when it burned. A new show building was hastily constructed that early autumn.


1918 – In September the Spanish Flu had made its dastardly way into Ontario and many local fairs and thanksgiving gatherings were in the line of fire, except that the authorities could not allow such a thing to ruin the annual Thanksgiving holiday. Lots of people’s obituaries started emerging in the news around that time except that they had all died of “pneumonia” and people didn’t seem that concerned that a pandemic could be at the root of it.


     Burford, Norwich, Woodstock and Simcoe all had very successful fairs, earlier in the fall, as they were mostly held before the actual outbreak was reported in this area. I’m sure however, though people were obviously becoming sick by the dozens, nobody would want to even utter such a thing about an “epidemic” at that time, in case people would all be afraid to attend the fairs.


     On October 17th it was announced that schools and churches and meetings were closed or cancelled the week prior, due to the “epidemic.” (Note: They called it an epidemic, though it was clearly a “pandemic.”)


     It is sad to learn that many of these people travelled to visit their relatives and celebrate Thanksgiving with them and within a week of Thanksgiving they were dead from the deadly disease. It is also sad to learn that when the schools closed, because of the outbreak, frightened parents kept their children at home and they were forbidden from playing with their chums who might infect them.


     By 24th of October Brantford “Emergency Hospital” reported that they had 130 cases, and by the end of October, Burford’s armoury was designated a field hospital for the sick and Burford’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Frank Johnston, who had suffered a bout of the flu himself, announced to the community that he had received notification from the Provincial Board of Health that a vaccine was on its way.


1919 - They had to move the new exhibit hall out of the way of the newly designed and constructed “George Street” (now park Ave.). They expanded the Burford Fairgrounds to the east and constructed a larger track as well that year and the area which had been the old show grounds was taken over by residential development. What is now Rutherford Street east was called “Park Ave.” as it had been the entrance to the show grounds but lead to the new Fairgrounds.


Burford Fair Cancelled due to Snow Storm:


The year 1920 Was a tough year for the directors of the Burford Agricultural Society. Between 1919 and 1921 Burford was in the middle of constructing new streets in the vicinity of the Fairgrounds, which necessitated the societies buildings and track to be constructed east of their original location on property.


     The 1920 fair was considered “cancelled,” but it was not completely “missed” (there is a difference). They still brought in some money and exhibits were still exhibited. It was Sept. 30th and Oct.1st but it may as well have been Dec.30th and Jan. 1st! First, a horrific rain storm hindered those coming to the grounds the first day to set up, then the rain turned to snow the following morning, which was supposed to be the “big day” of the fair. Very little money was received at the gate that year, because the gates were left mostly un-manned. On the other hand, exhibits were judged as per usual and prize moneys were awarded. Also, though the big day was dismal and unsuccessful, a wind-up concert was still held in the evening in the Barnea Hall, which turned out to be a complete success.






The information contained on this page represents the research findings and opinions of the author. The material on this page reflects the author’s best judgement in light of the information available at the time of compilation. Any use of this material made by a third party, or reliance on, or decisions made based on it is the responsibility of such third parties. The author accepts no responsibility for damages, if any, suffered by any third party as a result of decisions made or actions based on this work.








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