The Unionville Fair – 1884
This is a first hand account of attending the fair, written by Walter Kilborn Billings. We have this story in Walter’s own handwritten words; as far as we know, it has never been published before. Walter, who was born in 1871, whold have been a young boy of 13 when he attended the fair back in 1884.
“Unionville Fair (now Forthton) about the year eighteen eighty-four; that fall was a busy place.
The Fairground just west of the Hotel, each day just swarmed with race horses, high-wheeled sulky’s and drivers wearing small-peaked caps, exercising their fast steeds on this half mile race track.
John Forth, father of William and Dave, a tall genial host, bade a welcome for any and all the patrons of the Fair and served bountiful dinners at a charge of twenty-five cents, for any driver who had driven in from distant points.
Usually visitors would get an early dinner before leaving home. They had brought a feed of oats and a bundle of hay for their horses. Opening the snake fence across the road from the grounds, driving over to the grove across the field, they tied the team to a tree and then back to the gate where one paid a quarter to get inside. Of course we kids got in for ten cents or else crawled under the fence.
The first day, exhibitors brought in sleek well-fed hogs, cattle and sheep, which were placed in pens along the back fences. Horses were tied there too, with fence rails between to keep them from getting too close to each other. The Fair Directors allotted the animals to the different stalls. These men, usually on horseback, had a busy day.
There was a band stand in the centre of the race track and judges stood where the calls were made from, for the trials of speed. Carriage horses were shown and cattle brought out to be judged.
I had been promised a ride out the first morning from Lyn with George P. McNish, who was showing cultivators, plows and a new roller made in his foundry, and also some vegetables grown in his garden. My job was to help unload the big wagon, take the horse back to the grove, feed and water it at noon, and this paid for my passage out.
It was a long dusty drive out, but I was glad of the ride and as a helper I was given a pass, so did not have to buy a ticket, which I think I earned. I remember I was tired out when I got home that night, but it was worth it and a memorable trip.
Next day I managed to get a ride out again, and having my pass was able to avoid paying at the gate. Once on the grounds there was a lot to see. I remember Mr. Edward Davis on horse back calling out the different events, shaking hands with old friends, and really having a busy day.
What a fair, three days of it, well-groomed carriage horses, teams hitched to the family carriages with the top and back of the seat removed, making a smart looking road wagon.
These teams were being driven around the track to be judged as they passed the stand. Just before the judging got underway the Toledo Band took up their position in their stand and was waiting for the signal to start playing.
A Lyn man Will Cornell, had a sleek team of bays in the ring and as each driver had to be accompanied by a lady, he had persuaded a Lyn girl, Anna Eliza Yates to accompany him. When just as the team swung around the nearest to the front of the fairgrounds, the band started playing and as the drummer gave the signal with a loud bang on his drum, Mr. Cornell’s team swung off the track, through the crowd and over to the road fence, which when they struck, it went down, the team passing over it across the road and into the field where fortunately the fence had been opened and across the field to the grove where they were forced to stop. The passenger meanwhile, was hanging to the carriage seat with both hands. She was a good sport and did not scream during the wild ride.
Backing his horses from the bushes, the driver came back and drove through the gates getting a cheer from the crowd, drove in on the track again and carried off the red ticket.
I remember too, a farmer living in the Lillies district, who each year had grown wonderful melons and coming to the fair with a big wagon filled with lovely water melons, musk melons and citrons. A large box was filled with straw to protect them. A log bench placed beside the wagon enabled one to climb on to it, look over and select the melon you wanted. Mr. Miller would plug it to make sure it was ripe, always getting a bit of advice from those beside you.
A nice watermelon could be bought for twenty or twenty-five cents and as I knew Mr. Miller decided, I was getting good value. My cousin who was now with me and always helped in making my selection, was always ready to see that I did not eat too much of it and so helped a lot.
I had been earning some money that summer picking strawberries for a neighbour, getting one cent per box and had saved over a dollar for this trip, so decided we might as well buy another melon. My cousin agreeing readily, then we would go over and sit under a tree and enjoy my purchase.
Well later on I hinted that I was getting low in cash and thought some one else should buy, but my cousin said “Oh what is the use of hanging onto what you have, let’s get another melon.” Well with my last twenty-five cents I said I was going to buy a melon and take it home to my brothers and sisters, so instructing Mr. Miller of my plan he gave me a bargain in this last purchase.
Well I carried that melon around under my arm for quite a while. My cousin meanwhile trying to get me to cut it as he said it wouldn’t be hardly a taste for that bunch of kids, but I refused.
Finally across the grounds an accident had happened and we decided to run over to see it. Of course carrying my purchase I could not run as fast and my cousin fell just in front of me and I fell over him. Of course the melon broke and we had to eat it, but I did not know until long after that he fell on purpose.
Once I wanted him to buy a melon but he always let on he was broke. But I had my doubts, as later on as we were watching a chap, John, who had a stand and was entertaining the crowd with his ready wit and incidentally putting up some novelties in a paper bag and offering the lot for a quarter, would finally get someone to fork over the cash. Then when business was dull he would put in a jack knife, a pair of spectacles and some hair tonic that he claimed would grow hair on an oak plank. Some would bite and my cousin was one of these. He paid fifty cents for a bag and we took it over and sat on a bench. He tried the knife but the blade came off before he got a sliver off the bench. Then he said that the glass would do for his mother, but when he got them out one glass was gone. I told him we would have had a lot more fun buying melons with his half dollar.
Cheap John was witty and that was his charm. He would put a straight razor, which he said would split a hair, some of his hair tonic, ear ring or a watch in the bag, but he had a few around who were helping and they always got this bag.
Then the girl on the trapeze and on the tight rope up over the heads of those whose wives were in the building looking at the fancy quilts and spreads on display. An old friend of mine, Frank Clow, was one who was watching the performance and noticed an old bachelor in the crowd. Calling to him he said “Look out Red, you are going to burst your eyes”. He answered: “Well Frank I am shutting one eye”. His sister, a maiden lady, fat, fair and forty, heard his remark and ploughing her way through the crowd and grasping Red by the coat sleeve said “I hear you. Come away out of this, watching that brazen hussy up there, I should (illegible). You should be ashamed of yourself, and I don’t think she has hardly any clothes on. Come on away.” She dragged him away and for a long time could not forget about her brother watching that girl.
What a fair, and what fun that day. Uncle Hiram went to the fair that day, he had a box on his lumber wagon with boards running long the sides for seats. Near the centre of the wagon, you got a little of the jar of the wheels running over the stone road, but near the front and back your teeth were chattering most of the time. He had given a dozen or more of his neighbours a ride out and on the way home, made the remark that he had picked up a satchel on the grounds and had carried it around all day, thinking the owner would see it and claim it, but no one had and he said he guessed he would have to advertise it.
My cousin was a passenger with him that day and suggested that he open the satchel as there might be a name inside. After a lot of work they managed to get the bag opened. It had evidently belonged to some woman who had her baby with her and contained a large roll of soiled panties. He slammed the satchel shut saying “Damn it and I have carried that thing around all day!” As they were crossing the bridge, he tossed the bag into the creek, saying a bit of water would not hurt the contents.
P.S. Seventy ears later I drove past the fair grounds, now a pasture. A grand daughter of John Forth now has an antique shop at the corner, a high-wheeled sulky is in the carriage house, one of the buildings the judges stood in, is in the yard and as I drove by I tried to picture the exciting days of the Unionville Fair.”