I love the Saanich Fair. There’s not much that will draw me back to Victoria from Gimli, Manitoba before the long weekend in September but the Saanich Fair will. I would like to take all sorts of people I know to the Fair and say, see this, look at that, isn’t that amazing?
This year was the 145th Annual Saanich Fair. It’s the oldest continuous agricultural fair in Western Canada. For $10 a day on Saturday and Sunday and $9 on Monday, you can lose yourself in the incredible world of agriculture on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
What surprises me is that the first agricultural fair here took place in 1867. The Icelandic emigrants wouldn’t arrive in Gimli until 1875, eight years later. The first ship load of settlers arrived on Salt Spring in 1859. People who pre-empted land ended up paying a dollar an acre. (Salt Spring, Charles Kahn) By the time Icelandic immigrants were trying to farm hopelessly rocky land in Nova Scotia and Kinmount, 1874, 1875, good land and a good climate meant that settlers on Salt Spring had already developed orchards and were raising sheep. One islander, “a graduate of the University of Heidelberg” already had an orchard with 1800 trees. His partner rowed strawberries and other fruit to Victoria. (Salt Spring, CK)
Although Scandinavians had settled in British Columbia, they’d had to travel far and, often, circuitously, either around the Horn or, more likely, to the East Coast of the USA, then across the continent to California, then by ship up the Pacific Coast. The Finns started arriving on Vancouver Island and area in 1882. However, once the CPR had completed its rail line to Port Moody, then Vancouver, the Icelanders started to arrive. In the Icelanders of Victoria display it says that Thorkell (Kelly) Johnson and his wife, Maria, arrived in Vancouver on the first train in 1886. Others soon followed and in an article in Heimskringla, 1953, Arni S. Myrdal says that “In the autumn of 1887 we moved into our new home.” and, later, that “We had been in Victoria but a short while when letters began to pour in; most of them were from friends and acquaintances seeking information about the city.”
If Kelly Johnson was the first Icelandic settler to arrive in 1886, then only eleven years had passed from the settlement of New Iceland. A thriving Icelandic community developed in Victoria with a distinct culture, at least one store, a church. However, a recession started and, once again, many Icelanders picked up stakes to move to Pt. Roberts.
The Icelanders who came were not farmers in any sense of the term as we use it today. In Iceland, they could not grow grain. The cultivated no market gardens or orchards. In Victoria, they entered a surreal world where there was little that could not be grown. However, they seem, in large part, to have chosen the trades for that’s where the jobs were, or government work, or education.
It’s all about the climate. Pretty hard to grow figs in Manitoba or walnuts or cultivate vineyards for creating prize winning wines. No slander on Manitoba. I love Manitoba strawberries, raspberries, hazel nuts, blueberries but on Vancouver Island we live in a world of micro climates. Find the right southern slope and walnuts and figs prosper, grapes thrive, peaches turn ripe and succulent, kiwi hang from vines.
Maybe it has something to do with the kind of people who migrate here but people dedicate their lives to emus and llamas, to miniature horses and Clydesdales, to more varieties of chickens than I ever had any idea existed. They’re product proud whether it is local honey or heritage beets. It’s not just profit that brings them to the local markets with their produce but pride.
The 4H section of the fair is large. There are entries of every kind from vegetable art to scarecrows. There are animals competitions, the best goat, sheep, horse, pig, rabbit, chicken. Ribbons abound.
For years it was impossible to buy any of the products. The public demanded the right to buy the produce on display and now the farmers and market gardeners have booths laden with freshly picked produce. You can buy heritage fruits and vegetables you never see in the store.
There are demonstrations of using draft horses, of blacksmithing, of milking goats. There are pie, muffin, watermelon, ice cream eating contests. There’s dressage and a continuous horse show.You can even gaze at the stars.
Vancouver Island is all about flowers and there are flower displays and competitions.
They’ve combined the food booths of a Folklorama with the agricultural fair. The Hungarian booth has people lined up for a block but all the booths are busy.
On the main stage, musicians entertain the crowd that wants to sit down for a while.
Somewhere in all this is a chance to learn how to get involved. You can learn about raising chickens in the backyard, how to quilt, how to spin wool, grow Dahlias, milk a goat, have a farm in your backyard, make halters, raise bees.
I’ve always gardened, never farmed, never raised animals, but once a year over the long weekend in September, I return to my Irish roots, to a heritage of owning farms in Northern Ireland, of raising both crops and animals, of an Icelandic great grandfather who was a dairyman and farmer, of an Irish grandmother who loved gardening with a passion, who could grow anything, even on a city lot in Winnipeg.
Everything in our stores come from here, from the earth. Every child should visit the Saanich Fair, should see and smell and hear and touch live animals, should see the machinery, should meet the people who work the earth, raise the animals to feed us.
It may not be the Saanich Fair you are close enough to visit but there are others like the Brandon Fair, like Fairs spread across Western Canada, teaching us about both the present and the past.