By Gregory Clark, April 20, 1935
Once a month Elmira, Ontario, holds a town fair. Two or three hundred farmers throng the streets of the town. A great buzz fills the Monday morning, with the drone of auctioneers, the murdered squeals of little pigs, the bawl of cattle and the whinny of horses making a festival sound.
It is many, many years since most of the towns of Canada gave up their monthly fair. But Elmira is different. Elmira has had a town fair since long before the oldest recollection. We searched the records, but there was always a town fair in Elmira.
And if I am any good at seeing towns, then Elmira is one of the wisest little communities in this country. For it is a long time since I have seen a town so busy as Elmira was the Monday morning I wiggled my car through the congestion of cars and horses and buggies and, after two tries, at last took a parking place away down the side street.
For the town was alive and alight with action. In the open spaces auction sales of animals and of secondhand household furniture were going full blast; agricultural implements, wagons and horses were going under the hammerless fists of old-fashioned auctioneers; I saw an axe handle, home-made, go to fifteen cents, then by one-cent bids to twenty and sold for twenty-two. I saw a handsome young farmer buy five little pigs at $4.20 a pig.
“Pigs high?” I commented.
“I lost three litters this month,” said the young man. “We wouldn’t be happy at our house unless we had a litter of pigs to raise for fall. So here they are, high or low.”
And he sunk each screaming pig into an oak sack, stowed the struggling pigs in pokes under the seat of his buggy and, with a lean, clever horse dancing in the leather, drove out of the throng.
The rest of the world may have gone in for these here newfangled motor cars. But Elmira, Ontario, sticks to buggies.
Chicago big shots may fly in eight hours to Los Angeles to get away from it all. But the big shots of Elmira, Ontario, find a nice, light pacer, in front of a smooth-going rig, fast enough to keep up with the times.
Before I give you a picture of Elmira’s monthly fair, held on a Monday, with the streets of the little town thronged with men, its open squares jammed with auctions, the hum of country gossip, the drone of auctioneers’ voices, I would like to tell about a conversation I had with an old friend. It shows the humor, the kindliness, of Elmira and its surrounding country of beautifully kept farms. Farms more beautifully kept even than the millionaire farms along the Lake Shore road or up Bayview. In fact, the education of a student of agriculture is not complete until he has driven the country roads out from Elmira and seen these beautiful acres dressed like a merchant’s show window, with never an implement left rusting in any fence corner and no litter or old planks flung about the barnyard, nor ever a fence run down, and geraniums, white, pink and scarlet, in all the sweet windows.
Biggest Buggy Market
As I stood watching the monthly fair of Elmira, with the black-hatted Mennonite men in large numbers, with their calm faces and coats of black so incredibly old that they were a sage green across the shoulders, a Mennonite stepped up and spoke to me. Three years ago I had the pleasure of writing something about the Mennonites of Elmira district, and all of what I said was kindly meant. But I learned afterwards that some Mennonites did not take kindly to being written up at all, regardless of how well we spoke of them.
“So,” said this serene-eyed man in the wide hat, “you’re the gentleman who wrote up the Mennonites in the paper?”
“Yes; did you read it?” I asked.
“I never read newspapers,” said the Mennonite, reprovingly. But I heard what was in the article.”
“Ah,” I said, “then you do not think it as wicked to think evil as to do evil?”
“Yes, I do,” said he.
“Then it is not against your principles to hear what is in the papers, but it is against your principles to read what is in them?” I stabbed.
“Very good,” laughed the gentle man, “then I did not even hear what was in the papers!”
So I asked if these two strapping boys behind him were his sons. They were. We talked, the boys speechless and shy, murmuring yes or no.
“This one,” I said, “is going to be very big, eh?”
“Ah, yes,” sighed the Mennonite. “I am terribly afraid he will be too big to inherit my coat.”
And with this we laughed, for the coat on the father was so antique, its rusty green was fading to gray and it had the cut of a mid-Victorian cab driver’s coat.
So here in the face of all change, of wars and revolutions, of the collapsing of one civilization and the colossal uprising of others, remains a race of men as simple, as filled with plain toil and happiness as if a hundred years had stood still in their part of the world. Good-humored, sincere, devoted, they probably have in their possession more plain wealth than any other community in America. More acres free of debt. More cash in the bank. More peace in their souls.
And let the rest of the world abandon their town fairs, they keep theirs agoing.
George Class of Elmira is the senior auctioneer and former Mayor Frickey of Waterloo shares the auction honors. The fair is held once a month, generally on the second Monday, year in, year out. It dwindles a little in the summer, but with September the streets are thronged again every fair day through the winter, sees a great jam from nine a.m. until well past noon. The town merchants take care that no new goods are sold at the fair in competition with their stores. That is an understanding dating back to the earliest days.
But horses, buggies, farm implements of every sort and age, household furniture of all conceivable kinds, in fact anything that is secondhand or homemade, is traded and sold.
“Little pigs,” said William Auman, a cattle-buyer who has lived his life in Elmira, “are the chief commodity now and always have been. Hundreds of young porkers are brought here every fair day and mostly bought and sold amongst the farmers themselves. Very few dealers are here. Possibly a dozen horses will be auctioned or traded each fair day. Buggies sell from $10 to $40. I suppose this is the largest buggy market in America to-day.”
This is due to the fact that the Mennonites faithfully hold to their horses and rigs, religiously denying themselves such luxuries as cars. I saw twenty-five buggies for sale the day I was there. I saw a democrat in first-class condition sell for $22.20. I saw an eight-year-old driving mare sell for $90 and a single farm horse at $123.50.
But while the auction drones on from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. a highly active private treaty goes on all over the place. There are three main market stands, one opposite the public library, where the pigs, cows and horses are sold, and another large open space at the bus terminal, where the farmers’ driving sheds are. Here the household effects, buggies and implements are sold.
These farmers of the Elmira district are very thrifty of everything, including their time. As I said before, their farms fairly crackle with neatness and tidiness. But what time they have left over they employ in making all kinds of wooden ware for farm use. Axe handles, double trees and yokes and tongues for heavy wagons.
“In the winter,” explained a small, sturdy Mennonite of at least seventy years, “I have not much to do, so I make tongues and double trees and sell them here to my neighbors.”
Between the two large spaces jammed with mobs of farmers watching the auctions there are sundry small stalls where country cheese is sold. These people of German descent know how to make cheese, the holey country style of cheese, and stacks of it in doorways are cut into huge gobbets and sold to other farmers, who prefer the country cheese to all the factory products.
The display of household effects is extraordinary, I happen to know that in these lovely farm homes of the Elmira country is hidden some of the loveliest walnut furniture of simple pioneer design – the kind Toronto ladies would go silly over – but there is rarely if ever a stick of such furniture gets on to the open auction of the town. The people prize it more than connoisseurs. They prize it as the designers, the makers and the users of it.
From light oak bedroom sets, all manner of tables and chairs, some rickety, some decidedly good, down to funny looking mid-Victorian sewing machines, incredible pumps, odds and ends of kitchen and barnyard furniture, the display is truly what it is supposed to be, and that is, a means of disposing of whatever is no longer of any use. For example, the day I was there, the carpenter tools of an elderly farmer who had just retired to live in Elmira was one of the items of auction. Everybody for miles around knew this old farmer had been a first-class carpenter, and the disposal of his tools attracted every thrifty man in three townships. I asked about the origin of an entire bedroom suite. The girl whose room this suite adorned in a farmhouse had recently married, and as her young husband took her into a completely furnished home, her parents felt no further need of the furniture. That’s the spirit of the Elmira town fair. If a thing is no longer needed sell it, trade it. It may account for the eye-compelling tidiness of every farm you see for miles around Elmira. Thrift has got rid of every stick, every item that is no longer needed. Surely the strangest items auctioned the day I was there was a veranda pillar. Just an old, faded wooden column or pillar off a farm house porch. It seems the mate to this one had got rotten with age and water, and the owner had made two new matching pillars. This one, which some, perhaps many men, would have chucked out in the barnyard, was put up for sale. It sold for fifty cents.
“What are you going to do with it?” I asked the wide-hatted farmer who bought it.
“Use it to make an arch over my well,” said he.
The man who sold it got the fifty cents.
“And what will you do with the fifty cents?” I asked him.
“Put it on a young pig,” he smiled.
They Don’t Like To Borrow
Beds by the dozen, little beds, big beds, whole harnesses and bits of harness, a box of live geese, chains, great big logging chains, maple syrup pails, whole rolls of second-hand wire fencing…
“Have you had that chain long?” I asked the farmer who sold the logging chain.
“Just since November,” he said. “I got it here, at the fair. I needed a chain to haul a few logs out of my woodlot. Now I’m through with the chain, and I’ll sell it for maybe a few cents less than I paid for it. I didn’t borrow it. It was mine for the time I wanted it. Now somebody else will want it. I guess that chain has been owned by a good many men. Hauled a good many logs out of the woodlots in this part of the country.”
They don’t like to borrow.
The second-hand wire fencing was in perfect condition. It was as neatly rolled as a new roll. The farmer who was selling it had used it for five years to fence off a small field. It was no longer wanted. Instead of leaving it there to die, he took it down, rolled it up and brought it to the town fair for some other farmer who was just looking for that very thing.
I saw at least twenty men carrying small bits of leather harness over their arms, little straps and gadgets whose names I would never know. But wholly necessary to a horse pulling a plow.
“More than once,” said a farmer who was carrying a pair of those eye blinkers, “I have assembled a whole set of good harness from three or four old sets offered here for sale at the fair. A piece off one. A piece off another. And there I had a full set of harness for a song.”
The strangest thing at the Elmira town fair is the absence of women. Not ten of the bonneted and sombrely dressed Mennonite women were to be seen amongst the four hundred men. And they were entirely on the outskirts of the show. None of the townspeople or Elmira ladies seemed to be present at all.
“It is a men’s show,” said Postmaster O. Weichel of Elmira. “And always has been. No home baking or sausages or that sort of thing. It is a men’s fair, and besides being an institution for trade and commerce, it is a mighty important social institution. the men gathering to talk and gossip about country affairs, they look forward to it with the greatest eagerness. They wouldn’t do without the town fair for anything.”
“Is it as big as it used to be?” I asked.
“Quite as big,” said Mr. Weichel. “Changed a little in character. In early days, it had a certain holiday quality; there used to be fights amongst the men, and factions met here to settle matters after the fair in the time-honored fashion. They used to parade their horses up and down the town streets, showing off their paces.”
Mr. Aumon, the cattle buyer, said it was best described as a “little pig market” because, unquestionably, the largest turnover each fair day was in young pigs.
And in crates behind wagons and in buggies and on cars, the little pigs come to market at Elmira. Clean, tidy little pink pigs, some of them no bigger than bedroom slipper and some of them so big and ferocious they filled a whole cart to themselves.
But it is of the little pigs I would warn you. Their screams are so arousing. Their pinky plumpness is so appealing. And if you are a city person that goes to Elmira town fair, be careful of those baby pigs. They’ll get you. You’ll buy one.
And then where are you?
Editor’s Notes: Elmira is still home to a large population of Old Order Mennonites. Note that in 1935, they would not seem as old-fashioned as they do today.