SC Rewind: The Norfolk County Fair
Published: September 26, 2010 9:35 am ET
Last Comment: September 28, 2010 9:55 am ET | 4 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments
In this week's Rewind, Robert Smith talks about the country's oldest agricultural fair held each year in Simcoe, Ontario.
Harness racing and fall fairs as partners trace their roots back about as far as any history books will take us. They're kind of like that old love song "You can't have one without the other..." While that was once true, in recent years most fairs unfortunately no longer feature harness racing.
After a history of racing that spans three centuries, the organizers of the Norfolk County Fair recently announced that for the first time perhaps in history, there will be no races this year. While this news comes with a note of sadness, it should not diminish the tremendous role this fair has played in the preservation of the grassroots aspect of the sport. Many years ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Fair for several years in a row and I can speak with first hand knowledge of what a great show this was; there may have been none better. It was even more memorable as I attended with my two brothers, who probably attempted to distract me from my journalistic endeavours by encouraging me to partake of "adult beverages" while back at the barns. It was not an easy task.
Fairs have been a form of celebration for Canadians dating back over 200 years and the Norfolk County Fair held each year in Simcoe is a classic example of an old fashioned fall fair. The first fair in Ontario was held at Niagara-On-The-Lake in 1792 under the sponsorship of Governor Simcoe. The Norfolk County Fair was first held in 1840 and was the ninth fair organized in Upper Canada. Today it is the country's oldest and will celebrate its 170th birthday this year as it runs from October 5 to October 11. Its lengthy record makes the Fair 27 years older than Confederation and 11 years older than Canada's first postage stamp.
Over the years the Fair's harness racing program has been the scene of a lot of nostalgia and history of the sport and has attracted virtually everyone to participate with the exception of the younger generation of horsemen whose travels have taken place after the era of fair racing. It is even possible that a few "youngsters" have been on hand just to say they have been there. While its purses and so called "amenities" might not rank up with the major racing spots, no one ever had any more fun than at this great old track. Whether you were a competing horseman, an annual loyal fan or a first time attendee, you likely left with a smile on your face and immediately started thinking about next year.
My best memories involved talking to many horsemen, most of whom I had heard of but never met. To a person they were all helpful, friendly and extremely informative. I'm sure that most of them immediately forgot our chats but I have not. I think one time, perhaps around 1990, I may even recall seeing one Philip Stewart and his plaid inspired racing silks. I sure hope I'm right on that one! Another memorable part of the experience was seeing the old 100-year-old grandstand with stables beneath it, which was quite a novelty.
One year I recall a saddle horse getting loose from its rider while showing in the infield. Unfortunately, a race had just started and the horse bolted out onto the track. The race was quickly halted, the drivers gathered hastily to discuss a remedial strategy and within a brief few moments the race was restarted. On another occasion, the Bob Belore-operated starting gate refused to run. The races had to go on so a nearby pickup truck was summoned and driven out on the track. Starter Belore stood in the back of the truck with his arms outstretched, giving drivers the necessary instructions, and soon the sound of "They're off and pacing ..." was heard from race announcer Lee Paul.
This is not the first time that the Fair's racing status has been in jeopardy as the following story told to me many years ago by Hank Fess portrays as copied from a 1985 article I wrote: "One year our program was cut down as the races were not considered a drawing card. As soon as the races were over, the grandstand quickly emptied and everyone went home. When this was brought to the attention of the Board President he replied, 'they're all farmers and have to get home to do their milking...' The following year, the races lasted til dark and not a single person left the stands. Again, the Manager was approached and asked, 'why didn't they leave to do their milking?' He quickly replied, 'there's a different group of people here this year!'"
The Fair has been fortunate to have some good people working on its behalf down through the years. Their personal caring and input has helped it to survive while most others have faded by the wayside. The latest race secretary, Bob Kowalsky, has been in charge for several decades and took the job over from his father in law "Hank" Fess after many years as an understudy. Bob's fairness and knowledge as a horseman himself has made him an ideal "man in charge" for the annual affair. As a tribute to the long time dedication of Mr. Fess, a memorial race was set up in his honour following his passing in 1988 and has been an annual feature as recently as last year.
Organizers at the Fair are hopeful that harness racing has not gone forever. Based on initiatives currently being discussed in the industry, grassroots racing is not necessarily a thing of the past. It is my hope, and one that I am sure is shared by many, that one day soon racing will be resumed here and people will once again enjoy the sport as it once was. Many old pictures and stories of times past that have been passed down from one generation to the next serve as a lasting tribute to this great racing venue. The town of Simcoe and The Norfolk County Fair occupy a special place in the annals of Canadian harness racing's long and colourful history.