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County fair tradition in Collingwood is older than Canada

The Great Northern Exhibition has been an annual event since before confederation, missing only two years, both because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Even before COVID-19, county fairs were a dying breed. 

But even among the endangered, there are stories of survival like the Great Northern Exhibition (GNE). 

Presented by the Collingwood Agricultural Society, the GNE is an old fashioned, three-day county fair that has celebrated farming, livestock and heritage since 1855.

The Collingwood Agricultural Society, which formed before confederation, is one of the oldest agricultural societies in Ontario, and its commitment to tradition, entertainment and education has granted the GNE as one of the province’s longest continually running county fairs. 

This year would have been the 166th GNE, but for the second year in a row, the GNE will not be opening its barn doors to the public this fall. 

The decision was made at the end of May based on direction from public health and the projected reopening schedule, as well as input from society directors and volunteers — but it didn’t come easily. 

“Making the decision to cancel the fairs has been the biggest challenge,” said Joanne Gregson, president of the Collingwood Agricultural Society. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of our board. I would never have wanted to say, on my own, I am cancelling, without their valued opinions.”

Gregson was named president of the society in January 2020, and has yet to put on an exhibition in her tenure. 

“Two years as president, two years no fair,” laughed Gregson. “I’ve made history for them by cancelling it two years in a row.” 

According to Gregson, the GNE has never once been cancelled in the past.

“Even during wartime, from what I gather, it still went on,” she added.

But, as Gregson said, there were “too many unknowns” for the society to be able to justify spending valuable resources and money on planning for the annual exhibition this year. However, that doesn’t mean they are stopping there. The society believes the GNE is too important to the community for the show to not go on, at least in some capacity. 

Instead of a physical fair, the Collingwood Agricultural Society is looking at different options this year, both virtually and in-person, to be able to bring the community together safely. 

“We are working on keeping the community engaged with other events through the summer and into the fall,” said Gregson. “Keep the awareness out there that we are still around and we are going to be coming back sooner or later.”

Some of their ideas include a Family Scavenger Hunt, a drive-thru dinner and an online auction. They are also exploring the option of having a fireworks display take place the weekend the GNE would have occurred, Sept. 24-26. Gregson said conversations will be taking place between organizers and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit over the next few weeks to determine what is feasible moving forward.

“I like bringing the rural and urban together and being able to enjoy something that can be fun, but also educational,” said Gregson. “It’s the educational side of agriculture. So that everybody knows… And can have a better idea of what really happens and how their food ends up on the table.” 

One thing is for certain, said Gregson, and that is that the GNE will be back one day, and hopefully “bigger and better” than ever before. 

“What I am looking forward to most is the normal. For it to be normal. Welcoming people back to what it was and hopefully even better,” she said.  

The fair started out on a property in Duntroon over 160 years ago and later moved to Collingwood before settling on Fairgrounds Road in Clearview Township in 1984. It is an educational event for all family members and age groups, with a variety of food and events, livestock shows and tractor pulls, artisans and vendors, and of course, a midway. 

In the last couple of years prior to the shutdown, the fair was attracting anywhere between 13,000-15,000 people over the course of the weekend.

“It’s climbing, slowly,” said Gregson. 

Keep an eye on the Collingwood Agricultural Society’s website and Facebook page for future events and activities.

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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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