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ARGENTEUIL AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY (1826- )

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The Argenteuil Agricultural Society, best known for its sponsorship of the Lachute Fair, celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2000. Founded in 1826, the Society has held an annual fair ever since. Today, the Lachute Fair is one of the oldest continuous fairs in Canada.

The first Argenteuil County Fair was held in St. Andrews East in 1826. This village was at that time the largest and most prosperous in the then Seignory of Argenteuil. Argenteuil, which was not yet a county, included the area bordering the Ottawa River and part of the larger County of York. The area outside the original Argenteuil Seignory were mostly unexplored wilderness, though by the 1830s some pioneering farms had been established in the areas now called Lakefield, Gore and Shrewsbury. The far end of what became Argenteuil County was not permanently occupied until around 1845 and is shown on maps of the time as “Wasteland of the Crown.” The earliest 19th century settlers were looking for flat, fertile fields, not potential ski hills or second homes on lakes.

In its first fifty years, the fair rotated among the towns of Argenteuil, St. Andrews East, St. Philippe, and Carillon. At first, it was held at harvest time, but by 1877, with Lachute outpacing the older towns on the Ottawa River, the fair was permanently moved to its present location (more or less) at Ayersville, on the outskirts of Lachute, and at that time a part of Chatham Township. The fair became known as the “Lachute Spring Fair.”

In Cyrus Thomas’ history of Argenteuil (l897), the section on the Argenteuil Agricultural Society, though interesting in that it quotes the original charter, is somewhat limited. As Thomas writes, “It is to be regretted that the records of this Society have not been kept, so that a connected history of it could be given from its formation. Fortunately, a little pamphlet, 6 by 4 inches in size, and embracing four pages, has fallen into our hands, from which we learn the date of the birth of this Society. This relic has on its cover the following – ‘Rules and Regulations of the County of York Agricultural Society… On the 25th March, 1826, pursuant to public notice, a general meeting took place, when the following Regulations were unanimously adopted… The object of this Society is to promote, by its efforts and example, the science of Agriculture throughout the County; to give premiums in money or pieces of plate, agricultural publications or implements, to the practical farmers who shall excel in the art of ploughing, cropping, raising stock of all kinds, in the dairy, planting of fruit trees, and the general improvement of Farm and Home Manufactures… Any practical farmer or gentleman in the County may become a member of the Society, by paying the sum of five shillings, annually. No expulsion can take place unless at a general meeting, when two-thirds of those present may expel any member for misconduct towards the Society… the rules of competition to be similar to those adopted by the Highland Society of Scotland…”

Thomas goes on to outline the progress of the Society until 1895. “From this time onward for many years, the records are lost, but the Society continued to exist and ‘Cattle Shows’ and plowing matches were held annually. Commissary C. J. Forbes was president for some years and Wm Beaton, a teacher and bailiff of St. Andrews, was secretary, succeeded by Erick Harrington, who in turn was succeeded by Henry Howard. The earliest records we have been able to obtain after the above were those of a meeting held in Lachute, 31st December, 1869… The grounds and buildings which are leased to the Agricultural Society for its exhibition are neat and spacious, and their annual fairs are second only to those of the large cities of the Province, and invariably attract a large concourse of people.”(1)

Though the fairs once held in the “large cities” are a thing of the past, the Lachute Fair continues even though the ruling principles have been altered over time to adapt to changing conditions.

The Exhibition Grounds at Lachute were presented to the Agricultural Society in 1877 when Henry Hammond made a donation of fifteen acres of land to the annual show. In 1949, this land was augmented by the purchase of more land from Doris Hammond, the wife of Octavius Bruce. There have been several types of exhibition building at the fairgrounds over the years, the last being the new arena built in 1995.

The Lachute Fair has featured many distinguished opening speakers, many politically prominent in their time, though only vaguely (if at all) remembered today. For example, the Agricultural Society has preserved a speech from the fair opening in 1955 by the Hon. William “Bill” Cottingham, who was then Minister of Mines in the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis. Said Cottingham: “The Lachute Fair, in my opinion, is a great deal more than an annual agricultural meeting. It is a great deal more than a collection of prize stock vying for ribbons and attracting the interested and the curious – the Lachute Fair is an annual, tangible token of the great heritage of which we people of Argenteuil are so justifiably proud… I can say this, I feel, with every reasonable hope of being bourne out, for animals bred and developed in this area have consistently over the past quarter of a century won international recognition at North America’s leading shows…”(2)

From its original one-day show, the Lachute Spring Fair has grown to be “one of Canada’s leading agricultural expositions. Spreading over four days of intensive competition, exhibitors come from both Quebec and Ontario, with the occasional United States entry participating…”(3)

One of the most interesting and consistent aspects of the Lachute Fair has been the Handicraft Exhibit, which features various kinds of home-related skills, like quilting, knitting, sewing and cooking. This was, of course, an exclusively female domain, although there is a children’s division that did, and still does, encourage participation by both girls and boys. There have been some minor changes over the years. For one thing, married women are now referred to by their own names, not just those of their husbands. But most things at the fair have remained essentially the same.

Pat Kennedy and Margaret (Kennedy) Gillingham remember going to the Lachute Fair in the 1940s and early 1950s when the road from Morin Heights to Lachute was still gravel and the trip much less comfortable than it is today. “We’d take a hamper with lunch and really looked forward to the trip, especially seeing the horse jumping and sulkie races, but the road was like a cow path and the car trip wasn’t very pleasant,” says Pat.

“Our mother, Muriel Kennedy, was an enthusiastic participant in the Handicraft Exhibit and often received awards for her knitted or crocheted afghans,” remembers Margaret. “In 1977, one of her large hand-knitted afghans, that had won first place at Lachute, was entered in the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto and won a prize there also.”

Though the Fair has changed with evolving economic and social trends, there remains a basic continuity and a strong tradition of displaying the achievements and skills of the people of Argenteuil County.

References:1) Cyrus Thomas, History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec & Prescott, Ontario, 1896.2) Lachute Fair, 1955.3) Sidney Patterson, Secretary-Manager, Opening speech, Lachute Fair, 1993.

**Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Porcupine, Morin Heights Historical Association, Vol. 3, July 1999.