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Once Upon A City: The enduring charm of the farm

The Royal. Fidel Castro of Cuba. A bodacious bovine.

It’s no bull to say there is a connection between Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair and Cuba. In fact, a bull by the name of Rosafe Signet, is the actual connection. Rosafe was born on a Brampton farm and crownedgrand champion” in 1958 and 1959 at The Royal Winter Fair.

In 1961, the Holstein bull was sold for around $ 100,000 to Fidel Castro, whose revolutionaries had come to power in 1959. Castro wanted children to have better access to milk and that required improving the country’s dairy stock. One of Rosafe’s bountiful descendents, named Ubre Blanca, produced 109.5 litres of milk on a single a day in 1982, a feat that led to a “medal of honour” for the cow, and got her into the Guinness World Records book.

So being the “grand champion” at the Royal Winter Fair is no small thing in agricultural circles and the annual fair remains a critical exhibit place for those who breed livestock. The Royal, held at Exhibition Place (Nov. 4 to 13, Ricoh Coliseum) also draws hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to check out the prestigious Royal Horse Show, the wondrous array of poultry and farm animals, the education centres devoted to explaining everything from beekeeping to alpaca farming, and innumerable exhibits, including the gape-worthy giant vegetables.

The roots of the Royal remain in the soil, in promoting the best in animal husbandry and agricultural goods. That’s why it started.

Ontario and other provinces had always had small agricultural fairs but a group of farmers, led by Brooklin cattle breeder W.A. Dryden, wanted something on a national scale. In 1918, Dryden and others met in Toronto to discuss Dryden’s vision of a national exhibition “that would draw the best livestock and produce” from all the provinces, according to The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, An Illustrated History by Dan Needles.

The idea took shape and King George V allowed the use of the “Royal” prefix. Toronto just barely beat out Hamilton as the fair location and a new arena was built at Exhibition Place. On Nov. 22, 1922 the first Royal Winter Fair opened its doors. An estimated 150,000 attended, checking out the 1,850 horses, 2,500 cattle, 700 swine and 9,100 poultry.

The Nov. 22, 1922 Toronto Daily Star proclaimed: “Winter Fair a Wonder … First Royal Ranks as Best in North America …”

The Royal was seen as an agricultural showcase. As one Star story noted: “The farmer needs a mind trained in the latest methods as much as does the master mechanic, the merchant, the banker …”

The first fair even had a “new breed of poultry on exhibition” — the Chantecler — “snow white … with practically no comb or wattles,” a Star story related, adding it had “been developed by Brother Wilfred, the Quebec Trappist monk.”

Prime Minister Mackenzie King was the first PM to open the fair in 1928. Prime Minister Robert Borden did the honours in 1930. By now, the fair was a sure crowd-pleaser and people lined up to get in the door.

The Royal also attracted entries from farm children, members of the Boys and Girls Club (not until the 1950s was the name 4-H adopted in Canada). A Star photo from Nov. 19, 1930 captured the smiling faces of five of these “Farmerettes.”

Other fun competitions also became part of the Royal’s roster of events — like the tropical fish contest (started in 1925). The Royal Cat Show began in 1929 and there were various flower shows for decades, the latter often dominated by Toronto’s Lady Flora Eaton (wife of John Craig Eaton, son of department store founder Timothy Eaton), who was a fierce competitor.

In 1935 the Star sponsored a pup giveaway contest at the Royal, in co-ordination with the National Kennel Club dog show. Kids had to write letters stating why they wanted a dog. One boy of 11 wrote: “I want a dog because our cows are nearly all black. When they get in the orchard at night, we cannot find them.”

Even horseshoe pitching became a Royal event for a while. The Star interviewed some of the 1938 championship contestants, the reporter noting that out west “the game is all the rage. In some towns they had to bar horseshoe pitching before 7 a.m. because the late sleeping folk couldn’t rest.”

Cattle competitors have always been keen. In 1948 Winnipeg Jersey exhibitor Alec Burnside told the Star about the hours spent preparing “Katie the Cow” for the ring, including shellacking the horns. “Boy, they sure do shine after that,” he said.

Champion cows and steers (and their counterpart champion pigs and sheep) commanded high prices when auctioned from the Royal in the post-awards annual “Sale of Stars.” In 1958 one bull calf sold for $ 30,000. A Royal Sheep Show has been part of the fair since 1922. Goats were added in 1952.

Other popular events were cheese contests and the butter sculpture competitions, which started in the 1950s (and continue today). In 1958 champion distance swimmer Marilyn Bell’s strong arms were shown rising out of the buttery waves of Lake Ontario.

Various competitions have fostered the best in vegetable, fruit and grain production. The Star ran a photo in 1948 of 19-year-old farmer Eric Gallaugher who won first prize and was crowned “Potato King of Ontario” (there was also a “Wheat King” and a “Rye King” for a number of years).

But no aspect of the fair has endured such ongoing popularity as the Royal Horse Show, which has been part of the fair since the beginning.

The first 1922 horse show was not just a hit with the general public — its opening night was considered a huge social event for the city’s movers and shakers. The Star’s story noted the audience was filled with “scads of silk hats” and women wearing “pails and pails of jewels” that necessitated “pairs of detectives” to watch over “all this brilliancy.”

The horse show continues to offer competitive divisions of breeding and performance. Some things have changed. For instance, the first show had a separate commercial class for judging horses used for deliveries by dairies, coal companies and the like.

Today, more than 1,000 competitors are in the running for $ 800,000 in prizes and the title of Royal Champion.

Special entertainments have always been included. In 1922 the Royal Canadian Dragoons performed a musical ride. The famous white Lippizaner stallions from Austria came in the early 1950s. TV cowboy Roy Rogers appeared in the 1950s and in the 1960s, radio and TV star Arthur Godfrey brought his horse, Goldie, to the arena.

Members of the Canadian equestrian teams have performed at the Royal, including, in the 1960s, Jim Elder on Johnny Canuck, a spirited hackney thoroughbred cross who stood only a little over 15 hands high but was an amazing jumper. Ian Millar brought champion jumper Big Ben in the 1980s. In 1994 Big Ben, ridden by Miller, made a farewell appearance at the Royal before the horse’s retirement, cheered by thousands. Today, the Royal’s Big Ben Challenge is the final international competition and highlight of the Royal Horse Show with a prize of $ 75,000.

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