view counter
view counter

SC Rewind: Remembering Wallacetown Fair

Published: September 25, 2021 11:48 am ET

Last Comment: September 30, 2021 3:50 pm ET | 6 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind, Robert Smith takes readers on somewhat of a nostalgic trip to recall the lengthy history behind the Wallacetown, Ontario fall fair and fairgrounds.

His piece is replete with a number of great old pictures from the past of this quaint spot. He also discusses the important role that fairs in general have played in our country's history and also the past of harness racing.

For those who recall the joy of attending a good old fashioned fall fair (including this not-so-young fellow) it is quite natural to wax nostalgic around this time of year as memories are recalled of days gone by. Fairs and fall festivals are deeply embedded in our culture and have been an important part of our way of life for centuries. Countless communities across the land have beautiful histories of their cherished fairs and stories of how they started and progressed through the decades.

Many fairs have histories that date back to the mid 1800's. They have seen good and bad times and many have survived thanks to their dedicated board members and volunteer workers. Unfortunately the last couple of years have been extremely hard on many of them due to the devastating effects of COVID which have caused the cancellation of most fairs. They will rise above it and soon return.

The inclusion of harness racing at fairs started many years ago and the history books tell us that it was a natural setting for it from the earliest times. With so many people attached to the love of horses it was a natural fit. By 1825 harness racing was becoming popular at fairs especially in the U.S. That trend continued for many years but the old days when fair racing was common at most fairs gradually faded over the years. Today it is a rarity for the most part.

Wallacetown Fair

Wallacetown, for those not familiar with the geography of Southwestern Ontario, is located in the southern portion of Elgin County not too far from the north shore of Lake Erie on old #3 Highway. Its closest large towns or cities would include London, St. Thomas and Dutton.

For those who love to read about the "roots" of things (I am one of those) I enjoyed reading the fair's website. It chronicles the many changes that have occurred over the years including the struggles that most if not all small-town fairs have had to face to achieve survival. The woes of insufficient finances, problems caused by inclement weather and even the attempts by other neighbouring localities to "steal" the Fair are all nicely explained.

The Wallacetown Fair was first held in 1860 and actually dates back to a further time when it was first held at the hamlet of New Glasgow. It seems that once people started to attend they came back year after year. In 1932 it was reported that five people attending that year's fair had been at the first fair in 1860!

According to the Fair's archives, the first track to be located at the Wallacetown Fairgrounds was a 1/4 mile track built in 1875. In 1937 a series of major upgrades to the facilities and more property brought with it enough room to build a half-mile track. From this point, interest in racing grew. In 1947 the then newly introduced mobile starting gate was used for the first time. By the 1980's the practice of using stone dust as a racing base was introduced, giving the track a much improved racing and training surface.

While the track was used annually for Fair racing it has long been a year-round training centre for many horses, some who have gone on to national prominence. Undoubtedly the most famous of all trainers who schooled their horses at the local oval was J. Russell Miller of nearby Dutton who headquartered his well-known stable of horses here for some 40 years. During much of that time his assistant trainer Garnet Crawford and his wife Audrey resided at the track. A number of others including Ed and Mable Holden, The McWilliams Bros., Fred Sollner, Mel, Ken and Cliff Gowan, Chas. Hales, Gerald Aiken, Gerry Lamb, George McKenzie, Jeff Lilley, Bill Hamm, Randy Mazak and many more from days gone by conditioned their horses here. The Miller barn is still in use by veteran Ken Gowan. I am told that he is the lone trainer still stabled there.

A couple of old time fairgoers watch the proceedings at the Wallacetown fair from their comfortable perch. In the background is a full grandstand on hand to take in the day's activities.

I have randomly selected a couple of highlights of racing memories from the venerable Wallacetown Fair and listed them below.

1937 - Race fans were treated to six heats of harness racing on October 1 and the good locally owned mare Betty Grattan took home the lion's share of the $150 purse in the Class 18 Pace & Trot. She was owned by two local brothers, the Frasers, who operated a creamery at Dutton. Her mile times were both identical at 2:13 in the first and second heat. In the third heat Vester Bars, the gelded son of Grattan Bars, owned and piloted by Alex Belore of Mt. Elgin Ont. prevailed after finishing second in the two opening dashes.

1954 - Veteran driver Harry List of Chatham Ont. spent a good portion of his afternoon showing off his winning form to the crowd assembled here for the annual races. In total he won five out of six heats after starting the afternoon finishing dead last. He had double heat wins behind Silver T Lee for Bill Tomlinson of Glencoe and Queenie Volo D owned by Cecil Reid of West Lorne. He had a single win with Douglas Lee from the stable of Dr. Rogers of Essex. Over the years he has thrilled a lot of racing fans with his fearless driving style. Not always the recipient of the best mannered horses available Harry usually gets the most out of his mounts when owners chose him to "tame" an unruly steed.

The following photographs and short stories that accompany them help to trace some of the fair's past history. Each photo is accompanied by a short narrative.

In 1947 the fair became one of the first locations to employ the "new fangled" mobile starting gate at that year's races. Shown above is Ontario's first gate and it was owned and operated by Tom McDonnell of Hamilton. The owner was most often accompanied by his young son Bill who later became a long time official with the Ontario Racing Commission.

A field of horses is shown in the stretch during the 1949 races.

With the old judges' stand in the background a field of horses reaches the finish line. Leading the pack is Dividend and driver Joe Hodgins for owner Russell Miller of Dutton. The winner was a horse well-known in the area and was bred and raised by Dr. Meldrum a medical doctor from Norwich, Ont.

In the early days many fairs included at least one race of thoroughbred type horses in competition. The scene above shows a field of horses "under saddle" during the 1948 fair.

A group of railbirds enjoy the races during the 1948 fair. Racing was a very popular attraction as evidenced by the faces in the crowd.

In 1960 the Fair was opened by The Hon. John Diefenbaker (far left) who came to help celebrate their Centennial. A young exhibitor appears here as part of the festivities.

Mrs. Diefenbaker also attended the centennial celebrations. A local resident presented her with a box of freshly picked raspberries as a welcoming gift. A quote from the original photo stated: "Mrs. Diefenbaker assured the veteran of two World Wars that she and Mr. Diefenbaker would enjoy eating them on their arrival home that night." Wouldn't it be nice if life was still so simple.

Many fine exhibits of horses and other livestock appeared annually at the fair. Mitch Hepburn, one time premier of Ontario (1934-1942) who resided nearby, often showed his prized Clydesdales and his four horse hitch is shown above handled by his farm manager at his Bannockburn Farms.

Quote For The Week: "A well told story is a powerful thing."

Who Is It?

Can you identify this gentleman long associated with many facets of harness racing?

Who Else Is It?

Can you identify this gentleman in the sulky seat during his participation at a day of racing at a fair?

Be sure to stay tuned for the correct answers during the upcoming week.

Note - All of the photographs appearing in today's Rewind are courtesy of the Elgin County Archives. Many thanks.

September 30, 2021 - 3:50 pmThis week's pictures were

This week's pictures were both identified without much difficulty. The correct answers were as follows:
Top picture was well-known Dutton, Ont. horseman J. Russell Miller holding Blaze Pick
Lower photo was Gary Schweitzer shown driving Mighty Golden Arc at the Rodney track during the 1981 Rodney fair.
Thanks as always for your input.

September 28, 2021 - 7:32 pmI wonder how many trainers

Eric Warren SAID...

I wonder how many trainers today could tie one into an old Houghton Faber or Jerald race bike?

September 26, 2021 - 5:01 pmgary schweitzer driving

john tacij SAID...

gary schweitzer driving mighty golden arch

September 25, 2021 - 2:32 pmWho is it, none other than J.

gord waples SAID...

Who is it, none other than J. Russell Miller

September 25, 2021 - 1:02 pmRuss Miller with Blaze

Bob Belore SAID...

Russ Miller with Blaze Pick
Garry Schweitzer

September 25, 2021 - 12:37 pmBottom two... J.R. Miller and

Bottom two...
J.R. Miller and blaze pick
Gary Schweitzer

view counter

© 2021 Standardbred Canada. All rights reserved. Use of this site signifies your agreement and compliance with the legal disclaimer and privacy policy.

Firefox 3 Best with IE 7 Built with Drupal