The Western Fair is an autumn fair and agricultural exposition held annually in London, Ontario. Typically lasting for ten days in early September, the Western Fair features a collection of local food, livestock expositions, food trucks, amusement park rides, and entertainment acts of all types. The Western Fair has been a staple of London’s Septembers since the late 19th Century, and the district wherein it takes place has it’s own permanent infrastructure and is used year-round for events and expositions. The fair is a huge draw for the entire London, Ontario region. As the largest autumn fair in southern Ontario outside Toronto’s annual Canadian National Exposition, it is the culmination of the year for those who take part in competitive agriculture, a perfect place to catch a big festival music show in a smaller, more relaxed setting, and the perfect place to take the family for an afternoon or two as the school year swings back into gear.
The Western Fair was not the first large autumn harvest fair to be held in London, Ontario. That honour goes to the Provincial Agricultural Fair of Canada West, an annual provincial fair held in various places in Ontario from 1846 until 1878. The Provincial Agricultural Fair of Canada West was first held in London, Ontario in 1854, when the fair was set up between Talbot St. and the Thames River, where the recreation grounds for the London Life complex are now located. The fair would be held in London several more times throughout it’s life cycle. Each of the subsequent iterations of the fair would be held in downtown London, on British military property near Victoria Park, between Waterloo and Richmond St. The first time the Provincial Agricultural Fair of Canada West was held in London, it was attended by James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, who was at the time Governor-General of the Province of Canada. He is best known in Canada for being the person who started the process toward introducing the concept of responsible government in the province; in the British Empire as a whole, however, he is more well-known for his later position as Viceroy of India between 1862 and 1863. Later fairs would be attended by Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Stratheran, as well as Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald.
While the Provincial Agricultural Fair of Canada West would fold in 1878 as Toronto decided on a permanent annual fair (the Canadian National Exposition), the cities that hosted the fair would decide to go forward with fairs of their own. London was no exception to this; the city of London, Ontario decided to establish an annual autumn agricultural fair of their own even before the demise of the travelling Provincial Agricultural Fair of Canada West.
The Western Fair was first held in September, 1868, northeast of Victoria Park. Like the Provincial Agricultural Fair, it was held on the grounds of the Crystal Palace Barracks, a British military garrison in downtown London. The Crystal Palace Barracks were first built in 1861, in the same year that the second instance of London hosting the Provincial Agricultural Fair occurred. The Crystal Palace itself was a white brick building shaped like an octagon, with a door allowing entry through each one of it’s eight sides. In addition to the doors, the Crystal Palace featured 48 windows along the second floor of the structure. The original Crystal Palace Barracks is long since gone. When the Western Fair moved in 1887 to it’s current location, at Queen’s Park (or what is now known as the “Western Fair District”) they held a contest to design the new main exhibition building for the fair. George Durand, the winner, designed a building with thirteen high circular arches and extremely large windows. Since it was modeled after Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London, England, Durand’s design was also (somewhat confusingly) called the Crystal Palace. Paxton’s Crystal Palace would outlive Durand’s, but not by much; the Ontario version burned to the ground in 1927, while the English Crystal Palace would suffer the same fate but in 1936.
When the fair moved to Queen’s Park in 1887, it also gained full legal status under the Provincial Charter and Act of Incorporation; the license fees and purchase of the land deeds cost the city $65,000, or approximately $1.6 million in modern terms. It has operated there mostly ever since, taking over the grounds of Queen’s Park and becoming an operation that works year-round to deliver information and entertainment to the city of London. The only period of time in which the Western Fair was not held at the grounds now known as the Western Fair District was between 1939 and 1947, when the District was appropriated by the Department of National Defence to be used as a centre for recruitment and training of soldiers during the Second World War.
The Western Fair has long been a place to showcase technology and the change of culture. Electricity, now so embedded in society that it’s unthinkable to live without it even for a few hours, was first introduced to the people of Western Ontario at the 1883 Western Fair. Night exhibitions were implemented that year, with the exhibits lit with what was, near the end of the 19th Century, cutting-edge technology: incandescent light bulbs. In 1912 the Western Fair brought London it’s first art gallery. By 1918 the Western Fair needed to figure out a way to deal with an influx of a new, obnoxious problem: how to find places to park both horse-driven and motor-driven vehicles. The solution then was to build an underpass into the area surrounded by the horse-racing oval; the designated area was chosen so that the newfangled “noisy contraptions” would not disturb the animals being entered into competitions. In 1960, one of the most attended attractions was a fully-stocked bomb shelter; five years after the USSR had tested a nuclear bomb, this showed that the Western Fair had it’s finger on the pulse of what people were most concerned about.
In addition to technology, cultural change has often been reflected in the Western Fair. When the fair first moved in 1887, people living in the city of London wrote letters to the editor of the London Free Press to complain that the Fair was oriented too much toward farmers and breeders, and did not have enough items of interest for the average urban dweller of the 1880s. This can be seen as an echo of the struggle between the traditional economic base of rural agriculture and the growing force of urban manufacturing. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Fair Board convinced the city to let married men on government relief attend the Fair for free. The debate over this reflected a number of societal concerns at the time; some on the Fair Board expressed concern that giving such people free passes would condition them to expect free passes, while others on the Fair Board suggested that married men on government relief should also be given the first chance at taking on part-time jobs building and running the Western Fair. Prohibition was another social battle fought at the Fair; around the turn of the 20th Century, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union agitated against the sale and consumption of alcohol on the fairgrounds. In 1930, finally acquiescing, the Fair briefly went alcohol-free.
The Western Fair typically begins on the Friday of the second full week of September, and ends on the following Sunday, operating for ten days of fun and competition. There are a number of features that draw in patrons from London and elsewhere, each of which will be examined in brief. The gates open at 3 PM on the Friday of the Fair and there’s a lot to see, so planning in advance is always your best bet.
Music has always been a major focus of attraction at the Western Fair. The Fair has attracted a rich combination of local talent and big-name acts from Canada and abroad. In the 1990s, the Fair attracted a series of cutting-edge Canadian alt-rock acts like Moist, the Headstones, the Tea Party, and Wide Mouth Mason. In the modern era, the Fair brings in a wider variety of acts to appeal to as many Fair patrons as possible. The 2013 edition of the Fair brought newer, flashier acts like Fefe Dobson and Lights together with established acts like Hanson and Loverboy; 2014 put eclectic Ontario rapper Shad together with classic rock aficionados The Sheepdogs and actual classic rockers Glass Tiger. In 2015, the Fair tried going in a different direction, partnering with Live Nation to bring big acts to London for outdoor concerts outside of the Fair time. The flagship effort of this was a Van Halen show on August 5th, 2015; the outsized expenditures associated with this, however, convinced the Fair to return to big-draw concerts during the Fair again in 2017, bringing 54-40 and LOCASH. Going forward, the Fair will focus on designing concerts around acts that strike a balance between the new chartbusters and the older, more widely popular performers, as well as the usual collection of stellar local talent.
The rides are a perennial draw to the Western Fair as well. The rides are for many a main attraction to the fair; if you aren’t that enthused with the musical choices and you aren’t into farming and breeding competitions, you can at least get excited about the fact that the Western Fair District transforms into an amusement park for ten days in the early autumn. The ride layout at the Western Fair typically offers crowdpleasers like the Ferris Wheel, the log flume, the Euro Slide, bumper cars, and the haunted funhouse. In addition, recent iterations of the Fair have brought in more high-intensity rides, the kind you might find more at home in Canada’s Wonderland: the Mega Drop, the Swing Tower, the Wave Swinger, and the white-knuckle grip of the Ring of Fire. Families can rest assured that there are rides suitable for the littler ones as well, including everyone’s favourite starter roller coaster, the Dragon Coaster. Whatever your level of thrill-seeking inclination, you’re sure to find something fun to take a ride on at the Western Fair.
Aside from concerts and rides, the Western Fair is marked by an array of entertainment options to fit whatever you’re personally into. The demolition derby is an extremely popular semi-annual affair, bringing all types of drivers and their cars together for big smash-em-up fun. A similarly big draw is the championship rodeo, which has amazed and delighted crowds for years with a display of pure roping and riding skill. Also of note are the wandering entertainers: a collection of clowns, magicians, hula-hoopers, jugglers, and one-man-bands. It’s hard to go five feet without getting entertained, and that’s all part of the fun of the Western Fair.
Food And Drink
In addition to entertainment, the Western Fair is also a great place to pick up loads of food and drink. There are, of course, the usual types of fair food on offer: the Western Fair is awash in favourites like hot dogs, hamburgers, pretzels, and those deep-fried bits of heaven known as elephant ears. However, there is also a space near the King Street entrance to the fairgrounds that is set aside for the I Love Local part of the Fair, where local food, local drink, and local music come together to show fair patrons the best that London, Ontario has to offer. For local food, the Top Of The Fair restaurant offers grass-fed beef burgers, pork belly skewers, smoked turkey wings from Hayters Farms, pogo dogs and chorizo sausages from Sikorski deli, and cheeses from Gun Hill Farm. Drink is provided by two of London’s best craft breweries, Crafty Elk and downtown favourite Toboggan, whose Mr. Insurance Man is easily one of the best blonde ales ever made. While sampling the best vittles the London region has to offer, you can also take in a collection of local musical acts that run the gamut from rock to folk to country and back again.
I Love Local isn’t the only hotspot for food at the Fair, of course. The Fair features a long list of local and international vendors offering a variety of cuisines. The 2018 Fair features big chain vendors like Pizza Pizza, Mr. Sub, and Slush Puppie, as well as food from Ye Olde Fudge Pot, Little D, Gilligan’s Juice Bar, and Bayak’s Lebanese Cuisine.
Now that you’ve definitely decided that attending the Western Fair is the thing to do, how can you go about doing it? For the 2018 season, tickets are available both in advance and at the gate. Getting them in advance is the more recommended option, since they’re quite a bit cheaper. General adult admission is $10 in advance and $15 at the gate; children between 5 and 10 are $4 in advance ($5 at the gate) and children under 5 are admitted free of charge. You can also get a Super Pass in advance, which costs $40 and gets you a single admission plus a Ride-All-Day pass, which lets you on to the rides without the need of counting out coupons. The Ride-All-Day pass on its own is $40, so getting the Super Pass in advance is a much better deal.
The rides cost coupons, which can be purchased at the central ticket booth in the middle of all the rides. A single coupon costs $1 and there are bulk-purchase price breaks; however, even at a break of $50 for 55 coupons, it makes more sense in that regard to simply purchase the Ride-All-Day pass and thrill-seek to your heart’s content.
Advance entry tickets to the Western Fair are available through the Western Fair website, but for those more inclined to pay for things in person there are tickets available at the Administration Building (316 Rectory Street) during the working week, as well as the Sports Centre (865 Florence Street), and the Market and the Grandstand Building in the Western Fair District.
Parking is free on the Western Fair District grounds and the lot is open from 10 AM until 3 AM every day. Public transportation is also available, with four routes stopping at the Western Fair District: the 2 Dundas, 7 Wavell, 20 Cherryhill, and 22 Trafalgar routes.