Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 08.25.08
Stanstead, Quebec


My fair memories

STANSTEAD, QC | I still remember my first Ayer's Cliff Fair. It was the height of the Great Depression, 1934, and I was a mere lad of nine. Mother didn't approve of the fair. She thought it was full of "hootchie-cootchie girls" who were "faster than a Fitch Bay floozy." Mother also used to think gelatin was the devil's trampoline. Mother had some strange ideas.

Consequently, my brother Lance and I were forbidden to go to the fair. I recall the terrible longing as I loitered on the outskirts, watching the brilliant lights and smelling the burning hair.

Times were tough. Father worked as a bricklayer at the ill-fated Eastern Townships Conservatory of Puns and Wordplay, but when the pressures of work became too much for him, he threw in the trowel. He then made his living as a traveling hen polisher.

That summer of '34, my brother and I earned pennies by doing impressions of Marxist revolutionaries for tourists. Mother had taken to her bed indefinitely after becoming convinced that her "gastric indiscretions" would cause her to float away. With our saved earnings, Lance and I took advantage of the situation to persuade our harried father to let us go the fair. He put down his leghorn, sighed and relented.

How excited we were! On the appointed afternoon, we donned our best dungarees and cornhusk shirts and walked the five miles to the fairgrounds. We must have looked mighty fine walking down the street, our pockets weighted down with small pebbles (a concession to our mother).

Passing through the fair gates for the first time was a magical moment. So many people, the hustle and bustle. I'd never before seen so many beards. And the men were pretty hairy, too.

While Lance ran off to, as he put it, "find the biggest, most wonderfullest udder in the world," I immediately made my way to something I'd wanted to see as long as I could remember: the Eastern Townships Filamentary Compenditorium, the most impressive collection of string and twine in Eastern Canada. I was not disappointed.

So many memories of that day. There was the small band that played music all afternoon and into the evening. They only knew two songs - "God Save the King" and "Yes, We Have No Bananas" - but it was heavenly.

There was no midway in those days but there was Tiny Jack Ingerson, famous both for his size and for his mouth-breathing. If you said the magic word ("pelican"), he would throw you high up into the air and catch you. The trick, however, was getting him to stop.

Farmers, of course, came from miles around to display their livestock. The womenfolk got in on the act too, with their horticultural displays. I remember standing transfixed before the musk melons for what seemed like hours. Better than a hootchie-cootchie girl any day.

I was also lucky enough to witness the fair's last-ever Butter-Eating Contest, which was billed as "an Extravaganza of Oleaginous Splendour!" It was indeed something to behold, although it did put me off dairy products until I was in my late teens.

In the evening, there was the traditional donkey pull, a contest of strength and determination that, unfortunately, usually ended badly for the donkey.

I ate my first deep-fried parsnip that day, saw my first bric-a-brac. Or maybe it was a gewgaw. It's all a blur. All I know is that I went home that night with a head full of memories and a shoe full of cow drool.

Since that fall, I've never missed a fair. Mother disappeared mysteriously that winter. Father gained some security by landing a job at the Eustis vinyl mines. After that the fair became a tradition for Lance and me. Unfortunately, Lance was crushed by a freakishly large udder while doing research at the Lennoxville Experimental Farm in '42. But it was how he would have wanted to go.

The fair's changed a bit over the years. For instance, you can no longer pay a nickel to waltz with a horse. But one thing hasn't changed: the fair is still the stuff of honest and true memories.