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Newmarket's fairgrounds boasted race track, Palace, grandstands

This week, History Hound Richard MacLeod takes you back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when Newmarket's three-day fall agricultural fair merited a permanent location in town
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In my second article in our series on events that provided entertainment for our town ancestors, let’s explore the Chautauqua, a sort of travelling vaudeville show that featured cultural programs by highly talented artists.

It wasn’t always possible to travel to Toronto and other large venues for entertainment of this calibre, so the Chautauqua brought the entertainment to our ancestors as part of a circuit of performances.

The Chautauqua — which got its name from the place it originated, Chautauqua, New York, in the early 1900s —  was sponsored by a group of leading citizens who would guarantee any financial costs that may be incurred due to poor attendance. The costs of mounting these travelling shows was considerable, given the quality of the talent who were part of the show.

Unlike the circus, the Chautauqua would remain in each town for a period of seven days. It would consist of one large tent, a portable stage and the necessary accessories and enough chairs to accommodate about 250 people. There were also smaller tents to accommodate the performers and crews who were part of the company.    

We have records of a summer Chautauqua from 1920 to 1926. The first year it was held in Widdifield Park (now the parking lot at Riverwalk Commons), the second year it was on the King George school grounds, and then it moved to the Alexander Muir school grounds.

There were afternoon and evening performances each day. Each performance featured concerts by string quartets, mixed quartets, featured vocalists, lectures on current happenings and a series of three-act plays. Each morning, a summer school of sorts was held for boys and girls consisting of handicrafts, skits and gymnastics. At the end of the Chautauqua, the children would perform a show to demonstrate what they had learned.

During the early 1900s, when the automobile was still in its infancy, the opportunity to see these travelling variety shows was deemed a blessing. It was family entertainment, for the entire family. Sounds kind of nice.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the Fall Fair, a major form of entertainment in Newmarket’s history. Newmarket formed its first Agricultural Society about five years before Confederation and the notion of the Fall Fair followed shortly afterwards.  

The land for the Agricultural Grounds (soon to become the Fair Grounds and, later, a military training camp) was purchased by the Town early in our history. The land was divided into two primary parts; the north half was a race track enclosing a large paddock, which was used for lacrosse, soccer, and baseball and as an assembly area for parades, March pasts, and drills by the children from many rural schools as part of the grandstand entertainment.

The permanent buildings were located on the south half of the grounds. The Newmarket Fall Fair constituted a three-day event held near the end of September each year.

If you were to approach the grounds along Lydia Street toward the entrance, you would have been impressed by the freshly painted buildings decorated with numerous flags and bunting. At this time, a large Union Jack would have flown on a mast overlooking the admissions area and ticket office, near the turnstiles.

The first building you would see upon your entrance would have been the Palace, about a quarter of the way into the grounds. The Palace consisted of two floors, the upper floor being a mezzanine, so one could look down on the exhibits below.

The building had a wide veranda to the north of the main floor and a huge balcony above. I am told that you would see ladies in white dresses and gloves serving tea and refreshments to the judges and any distinguished guests on the veranda.  Citizens bands from all the local towns would be there entertaining the people from the balcony.

Opposite the Palace was a grandstand that faced north. Below this grandstand seats and facing the Palace were 12 or more concession booths. A set of hinged doors swung out and above these booths to form a continuous canopy over the customers. A little to the east of the Palace was the Poultry Building, and three other permanent buildings.

I will take you on a walk about through the fair as reported in the newspaper of the day. Upon entering the grounds, we would see a decorated merry-go-round operated by an old upright steam engine. This would be replaced in 1921 with a newer merry-go-round and operated by a large single-cylinder gasoline engine, which provided power for the horses. Progress.

As we move to the Palace ahead, we could have our weight guessed. People loved the games back then just as much as we do today. We would pass a booth where men were asked to test their strength by hitting a level with a huge mallet, trying to make the bell ring at the top of a long pole.

There was a booth called Houze-Houze, pronounced Howzee-Howsee, the precursor to our modern bingo game. Everyone wanted to win a cuddly teddy bear or feather-stuffed kewpie doll.

During the First World War, there was a shooting gallery and recruitment station should you decide to enlist. In the 1920s, marquees were set up to display the latest automobiles — the Model T, McLaughlin, Franklin, Gray Dort and Stanley Steamer.

We would next head into the Palace, where we would find one long table, stretching west to east, displaying fruits and vegetables, grains, potatoes, pumpkins and squash, all awaiting the judges’ decisions.  

Along the walls, we would find displays by the industries of our town, from Davis Tannery, William Cane and Sons and Office Specialty. Many of the leading merchants would display their wares, ranging from the latest sewing machine, washing machine or stoves.

On the north side of the mezzanine were displays by the children from our local schools.

Along the west end of the building were the entries of all the goodies to eat such as candy, bread, buns, cookies, pies, jams and other confectionery. The south side held all the homemaker entries, including weavings, lace, hooked rugs and quilts. There was usually a display of stuffed birds and animals in the corner.   

When we were ready to leave the Palace, we would pass through a tent where we could see the latest in agricultural machinery and equipment. After all, this was farm country.

Our next stop would likely be the poultry building, where we could see every variety of chickens, ducks, geese and perhaps a few bunnies. There was also a livestock building for the numerous breeds of horses, cows, sheep and pigs.

Most of the food concessions were under the grandstand seating. Hot dogs (called coney-islands) could be had for five cents. Hamburgers didn’t appear until 1920 and were 10 cents. If your tastes were more to ice cream, freshly warmed peanuts, popcorn with butter, candy floss or cider, you could get them for a mere five cents each.

The midway extended back to the livestock building and was always packed with people trying their luck at the many games of skill and chance.

The grandstand entertainment varied from year to year. Elman W. Campbell remembers bicycle and motor races, horse races, and the team of horse strength competition. There would be the obligatory parade of prize cows and horses lead by their owners.   

The evening entertainment consisted of mostly musicals, stage productions and dance recitals. Newmarket was a hotbed for that type of entertainment and that topic is certainly deserving of a separate article one day.

Gradually, the fair’s leadership changed in in 1920 and the emphasis shifted from agriculture and the assorted equipment to one centred on harness and horse racing. The purses offered for agricultural product decreased, while the prize money for racing increased dramatically.

The attendance did not increase as expected, and the board found itself in real debt. They turned to mortgaging the buildings. More emphasis was placed on horse racing, while the other displays were dwindling in number. The lack of funds spurred an increase in the admission price and attendance fell. Eventually, the buildings were torn down and sold for lumber. The fair was now bankrupt.

This was a sad ending to Newmarket’s Fall Fair.

We still have fairs and the modern equivalent of the Chautauqua, but they are not the same, I am told. Now we many forms of entertainment but once upon a time, the circus, fall fairs and Chautauqua were big-time events in our Newmarket.

Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella, The Reminisces of Elman Campbell, Various Oral Histories by our residents, The Newmarket Era 1882 through 1935

NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at thehistoryhound@rogers.com.     

Editor's note: This article has been edited to remove a reference to the Queen's Plate at the Newmarket Fair Grounds race track.




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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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