The Pictou Exhibition originated as a ploughing match in West River in 1817. By 1851, animals were shown at the Pictou Market Place which was across from the present-day Tim Hortons in downtown Pictou. In 1891 the Exhibition went to its present day location. The main building which everyone speaks about with fondness was moved to that location.
Years ago the Pictou Exhibition was the most popular and talked-about event of the year. People would come from all over Nova Scotia as well as Prince Edward Island to exhibit, help out, socialize or just enjoy the sights and sounds. When they came, you could expect to see their finest clothing.
Two weeks before the exhibition a booklet would arrive in the mail that told people what would take place and when. If you were interested in entering your baking, animals or crafts you filled out a form and returned it with $1.00 to cover your expenses.
The Exhibition always started the day after Labour Day and at first lasted three days. Then it was extended to four days when they got more entertainment. Admission to the Exhibition was 50 cents.
In addition to the main building there were barns for the animals, a dance pavilion, a dining hall, an outdoor arena and a ladies’ waiting room.
Inside the main building there were two floors, each as equally entertaining as the other. The flowers, vegetables, grains, fruits, baking and preserves were set around in a circle on the bottom floor. To get to the top floor you had to go up a set of winding stairs by the fantastic floral exhibit. The top floor was for knitted sweaters, mittens, socks, hats, chair covers, hooked mats, quilts, embroidery work, sewing, paintings and home-made jewellery as well as some wood working. In later years there were 4H displays. Companies such as Ross Furs had displays on this floor. To get to the first floor you went down a different set of stairs.
The animals that were brought to the Exhibition were cows, calves, horses, foals, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, goats, oxen and on occasion foxes were brought in from the local fox farms.
Horses always played a big part in the Exhibition. The horse barn had stalls and the men who owned the horses slept above the stalls as did the men who brought in their cows.
The events for the horses were horse pulls, four-to-eight horse hitch and showing. For the horse pulls the horses were hitched to a drag, then sand bags were added until the horses couldn’t pull any more. For the four-horse hitch the drivers would be required to make manoeuvers such as the figure eight, to test their driving skills. For the six and eight-horse hitch, fewer manoeuvres were required. For the showing the horses would be done up in fancy ribbons and bows and the brass on them would be shining. They would be escorted around the ring and judged on their behaviour, condition and breed.
The square dances which were very, very popular were held in a large pavilion which had a great wooden dance floor and wooden shutters which could be pulled down by ropes if it rained. The band and the caller would be placed half way down one side of the dance hall on an elevated platform. Each square dance set would cost l0 cents.
Each year a different ladies’ church group was responsible for the dining hall. Ladies from the community would also send in pies, biscuits, etc. for the meals. The menu was:
- Beans and brown bread for Breakfast
- Hot Meal for Dinner
- Cold meat and hash for Supper
- Variety of pies and donuts for dessert
This was a very busy spot.
In addition to the dining hall there were fast food outlets where you could buy fries for l0 cents, hot dogs or hamburgers for 15 cents and watered-down orange juice for l0 cents.
The midway consisted of rides and games. You could go on the swinging swings for l0 cents, the merry-go-round for l0 cents and the ferris wheel for 25 cents.
The games on the midway were:
- Milk Bottle Toss: you received three balls, which you threw at three bottles. The number of bottles you knocked over determined the prize that you would win.
- Dart Games: A board would be set up with balloons stapled to it. You wor”rld get three darts and would throw your darts at the balloons. If you hit a balloon you would get the prize that was written on the piece of paper inside the balloon.
- Wheel of Fortune: On a table a number of cards would be set up. People would put money on the one of their choice, then spin a wheel that had all the cards on it. If the wheel stopped on the card of your choice you would win a prize.
- There was a game at the Exhibition that was a test of one’s strength called the Mallet Game. A scale would be set up with a bell on the top; you had to hit the bottom of the scale with a sledge hammer and a ball inside would go up depending on how hard you hit it.
One year there was a game that if you could hammer a nail in a board with l0 strokes you won a box of chocolates. Elizabeth MacKenzie went to the Exhibition, played that game and won so many times that the man running the game told her that she couldn’t play any more. Elizabeth went home, changed into some old clothes which included a big straw hat, went back to the Exhibition and started playing again. After she won, the man lifted up her hat and took back her box of chocolates.
In later years there was a Bingo tent. There were excellent prizes and instead of markers, the players used kernels of corn.
The Exhibition had some great entertainers. Performers such as Hank Snow and Will Rogers, as well as local bands, performed on stage in the outdoor arena. In later years there were fiddling competitions. ln addition to the music there were high wire acts, a trapeze act, and an acrobat with a long, slim pole, just to mention a few.
The ladies’ waiting room (washroom) was a building just as you entered the gate of the Exhibition. At one end there were three stalls. Each stall resembled an outhouse with a wooden seat with a hole in it. At the other end there were plenty of benches where the ladies could come in and rest or feed their little ones.
The tug-of–war contests were a very important part of the Pictou Exhibition. Teams of men came from Toney, River, Caribou River, River John, Bay View and Lyons Brook to compete.
The first queen of the Pictou Exhibition was chosen in 1935. Much like today, the contestants were asked questions, performed and dressed up in fancy dresses (they didn’t have a swimsuit contest.) The pageant took place in the outdoor arena.
Each year when the Pictou Exhibition came to a close, people would eagerly await next year’s.