The Cowichan Exhibition has contributed much

“Keen interest and much amusement were the outcome of the hat trimming and cigar and soda water races...”—Cowichan Leader, 1903.

“Keen interest and much amusement were the outcome of the hat trimming and cigar and soda water races and there were a large number of entries for each event.”—Cowichan Leader, 1903.


In the course of researching the history of the Cowichan Exhibition for the Citizen’s new flagship Seasons magazine, I unearthed numerous ‘nuggets’ that didn’t quite fit the storyline but which are worth relating. Particularly those that illustrate how much things have changed, agriculture’s vital role in our progress over the past century and a-half, and what the Ex stands for today.

If you don’t think the Cowichan Exhibition is unique in Valley history, it’s worth noting that the Cowichan Agricultural Society, the Ex’s original parent body, has been described as “the only institution of its own making which can trace its history back to the earliest settlement, and thus link the past with the present”.

All this because, in 1868, “The few scattered residents of Cowichan and adjacent Islands agreed among themselves to set apart a day in the fall of the year to be given up to a united celebration as an expression of thanksgiving for the bounties of the past season.”

Later, under the Agricultural Societies’ Incorporation Act, 1873, the CAS was mandated to “protect and advance the agricultural interests of the Electoral District of Cowichan” by holding “an annual Fair and Cattle Show at or near Duncan Station, Quamichan, B.C.”.

The first boards of directors of the Cowichan, Chemainus and Salt Spring Island Agricultural Association is a who’s who of Valley pioneers: Archdeacon W.S. Reece, William Drinkwater, Edward and Henry Marriner, William Smithe, Joseph Drinkwater, D.W. Mainguy, W.C. Duncan, L.J. Skinner, James Leask, John Pimbury and J. Booth.

As for changes, check out this playlist for the 1903 fair as it was described in the Cowichan Leader: “…Sports of every description were enjoyed and afforded much amusement to the spectators… A considerable number entered for the high jump and the prize was keenly contested… The wrestling off horseback was one of the best features of the sports and was well supported by eight entries. Keen interest and much amusement were the outcome of the hat trimming and cigar and soda water races and there were a large number of entries for each event. Mr. Frank Ticehurst won the thread-needle race on quite a smart little pony.”

And today’s carnie sideshow is nothing like it was in 1908 when the Cowichan Agricultural Association’s Annual Ball was “the acknowledged society event of the season” with “a reputation that has extended all over the Island”.

Highlights for 1912 were the Gideon Hicks Piano Company’s “attractive showing of pianos and piano-players,” and the Cowichan Leader’s new Linotype machine which also “attracted crowds all day”. Ditto the side shows, coconut shies, palmists [and] fortune tellers. The 1913 Fair included hog and sheep entries from Alberta and Ontario, the first wood-chopping competition, a race in uniform by military cadets and a tug-of-war on horseback.

Besides livestock, the 1919 Fair displayed paintings, photographs, lace and cushions, enamelled necklaces and fretwork, relics from the recent First World War and “a bridle hand-stitched by Mr. H.E. Gough when in France”. The St. John’s Guild and Methodist Ladies’ Aid served over 1,000 meals and took in over $600.

Neither world war was good for the Fair. In September 1939, just three days after hostilities began, CAS directors voted unanimously to cancel the Fair. “In the opinion of the directors,” said W.K.S. Horsfall, secretary, “it would be inadvisable to attempt to carry on the Fall Fair in view of the present situation and conditions.” Among those wartime conditions was the fact that soldiers were being billeted in the Agricultural Hall.

What has the Cow Ex meant to the people who supported it? Historian E. Blanche Norcross thought that agriculture actually played a secondary role in its function: “They were not very scientific farmers in the early years of settlement; they entered a pig or a bushel of oats just to ‘help the fair,’ then devoted the rest of the day to catching up on the news. It was not very good for farming, perhaps, but it was wonderful for neighbourliness. Gradually, better stock was introduced but the social aspect still dominated.”

Former Cow Ex president Dave Gronlund thought its purpose is to “encourage cultivation of the soil, the breeding and finishing of better livestock and the general development of all agricultural resources and to foster every branch of industrial, commercial, mechanical, educational and household arts”.

The Cowichan Leader, listing the 1979 program of puppet shows, pet shows, horseshoe pitching, tug-of-war, loggers’ sports, ladies’ nail driving and sheep dog trials, thought they were “geared to appeal to all ages”.

Noted Valley historian Jack Fleetwood probably spoke for many when he wrote that he most missed what he called the district exhibits which were terminated in the 1930s. He thought they “brought in all the best of agriculture and home domestics from Glenora, Westholme, Sahtlam, Cowichan Station, Somenos, and possibly Cobble Hill.”

Perhaps current Cow Ex president Fred Oud put his finger on the Ex’s modern day appeal after hinting at forthcoming changes in displays, exhibitors and events: “I think people, the younger generation, care about this. The older generations have been on farms, lived on farms or have been raised on one, but the younger generation doesn’t have the chance to get an opportunity to see it firsthand.

“They don’t get a chance to walk on a farm, to touch a cow or look at a chicken, or pet a duck or watch a goose lay an egg — they can do all this at the Exhibition.”

In terms of overall community contribution, Cowichan Ex researcher Bonnie M. Thompson has termed the Cow Ex “our window to the past, allowing us a tantalyzing glimpse of life in the Cowichan Valley during this bygone era. By analyzing the syllabus classes, scrutinizing the prize lists, and studying pre-fair advertisements and post-fair write-ups, it is possible to use the Cowichan Exhibition as a vehicle that reflects and allows us to analyze life in the Cowichan Valley during this timeframe.”