When I was a kid I hated sports day. I was (and am) both uncoordinated and un-athletic. Because of my November birthday, I was often the youngest child in my grade. Every year I would be required to participate in track and field events and every year I would finish dead last in every event. For me mandatory participation equaled inevitable humiliation. It kicked the heck out of my self esteem.
Fortunately for me, we also had the Cowichan Exhibition; our fall fair here in the valley. I was never a 4H kid but I eagerly entered many of the childrens’ competitions at the fair, submitting artwork, cooking, and flower arrangements. The blue ribbons I brought home showed me that what I lacked in athletic ability, I made up for in creativity. I cannot begin to tell you how important that affirmation was to me.
Aside from affirming the self-worth of misfit girls, country fairs have always served an important function within our communities. Back in the days before factory farming, supermarkets, and imported foods, local farms provided the bulk of our food supply. In those days, fairs were a place for farmers to meet, to trade, and to compete. A win at the fair meant an increase in the farmer’s reputation with commensurate increases in the value of his stock, and in the prices he could charge for for his products.
Farm wives and children competed at the fairs too. Prizes for the best preserves and baking were hotly contested, and children learned much about the trade of farming by raising their own livestock for competition. The fall fair celebrated the accomplishments of our farming families and enabled non-farming members of the community to become better acquainted with those who produced their food.
Nowadays, the focus of the fall fair is shifting. Teens and families gravitate toward the midway. Some never even enter the livestock barns. There are fewer entries in the cooking competitions. Still, the farmers continue to come, and raising livestock, cooking, gardening, and preserving our harvest remain perennial themes.
Today is the first day of the 143rd Cowichan Exhibition. I’m excited to be going. I’ll visit the animals in the barns, watch the draft horse competition, check out the displays in the exhibition hall, enjoy the childrens’ art, and—of course—sample the food.
The fair’s organizers have done a wonderful job of adapting to the times, working hard to ensure that the displays at the exhibition remain current. This year there is a duct tape competition and a Sheep to Shawl event, in which a group of weavers and spinners will start from scratch with a newly shorn fleece today and finish with a woven shawl on Sunday. There are zucchini races, a scarecrow competition, and a contest in which local celebrities try their hand at milking cows. There are floral arrangements and harvest baskets. There is a wonderful photography display. There’s kids’ art, and quilts, and rug hooking. There’s music and dancing. I’m looking forward to all of it.
Here are some pictures from last year's Cowichan Exhibition:
Fair weekend is one of the happiest of the year for me. If you’re in the area, you can check out the ex too. You’ll find detailed information and schedules at http://www.cowex.ca/ If you’re not in the area, do consider enjoying the fall fair in your own community. We all need to refresh our connection with our rural roots and to honour the folks who work so hard to produce our food.