With a storied past, Benalto Agricultural Society is presenting the 95th Benalto Fair and Stampede later this week.
Its history has been chronicled both in the event program and in the history book Homesteads and Happiness where a story was written by W. E. (Dick) Austin.
From these sources and others we learn, “The first full scale stampede was held in 1917 and has been held annually since then. There are also some old timers that claim a few exhibits were also in the first stampede but it is not known for sure. The first registered fair under Benalto Agricultural Society was held in 1918.”
The Red Deer Advocate of June 29, 1917 made mention of a field day which was scheduled for Wednesday, July 18th, when $200 in cash prizes will be given for races, bucking contests, horse and pony races and baseball. A brass band and refreshments were mentioned. The July 6th and 13th issues contained advertisements for the event which was proclaimed “Better Than Ever”.
It appears the Advocate didn’t print a follow-up story on the success of the initial event.
“The full success of the society has to be given to the early founders of it and to the many men and women as officers that took part in the beginning and the ones to follow them,” wrote Austin. “The fair and stampede were run by two separate groups in the beginning but were run on the same days. After a few years they joined together but the actual year is not known.”
“The Stampede in itself can be to the credit of the late F. G. Jenkins and the Armstrong Brothers. They organized the first show and ran it for many years to make it one of the main summer events in Central Alberta. The Armstrongs along with Ed Medin, Orin Wylie and many more supplied the stock for many years. The announcing was done by Frank Jenkins on a saddle horse with the aid of a megaphone.”
In 1919 total gate receipts were $97. In 1920 an aeroplane ride could be had at $10 for 12 minutes. In 1921 $3,900 was paid in prize money where $100 was paid to the first place bronc rider and $15 was paid to the first place in the horse race.
Cowboys such as Bayse Collins, Bert Long, Ole Anderson, George McKiddie, the Wartin brothers, Pete Knight and the Cassidy Bunch all took their turn trying out the Armstrong and Lightbown bucking stock in the ’20s and ’30s.
The livestock show always drew the farming people from far away.
By 1924 there was a hall, a poultry building, a horse barn and a grand stand that would seat 500 people. These were all built at a total labor cost of $25.
In 1935, under President Thomas Smith, the society became free of debt.
During the first stampede there were no chutes so Bill Hansen was the ear man to ear down the broncs. In the second year only one chute was made so to save time, his services were needed again.
The site used for the event was purchased in the early 1920s when the land was up for tax sale.
“Had it not been for the efforts of Peter Cameron and the McKees and others, this land would have been lost,” wrote Austin.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the rodeo went professional but there were events with riders back to about 1935.
In 1973 the craft, baked goods and plants competition exhibits were no longer attracting many competitors. The sheep and swine classes were dropped and only 1,000 people attended.
One of the reasons was that Benalto was being squeezed out by the larger exhibitions and rodeos. Also with other exhibitions and rodeo schedules, Benalto had to move to the start of July eliminating a lot of the vegetable and grain displays.
Then in the 1980s things improved again. Traditionally the fair was held in the middle of the week which attracted Red Deer residents on the Wednesdays that were a half holiday in the city. The half day was no longer happening so the society decided for July 1980 to hold the event on a Saturday which contributed to attendance records broken with those watching, about 2,500 and those competing, around 155 in seven professional rodeo events.
In 1981, Benalto was once again hosting the fair and rodeo with beautiful weather and a new covered grandstand. When tired of that there were the concession or exhibits in the hall like sewing, baking, penmanship and crafts. The horsepull was the crowd pleaser that year.
In a fair history prepared by Leora Ross, she noted that many early exhibitors donated the prize money back to help with expenses.
The fair has been held every year since, except in 1932, because money was so scarce. Instead there was a ball tournament that year.
Many area families have participated through four and five generations. Area participants would have friendly competitions. One year you won, the next year they might.
Children looked forward to the fair to enter the classes and enjoy the festivities.
Fair entries at the present time consist of produce, baked goods, sewing, handicrafts, photos, preserves, school work, art, etc. Some people enter one thing while others enter as many as 60 things.
We have regular participants from as far away as Montana and Okotoks. Children’s classes are free to enter and win ribbons and prize money as well as bonuses. Adults win the same but pay a minimal entry fee.
“It’s fun for the whole family to come and see our exhibits in the basement of the Benalto Elks Hall,” she wrote.
In his article, Austin gave special credit to Alice Durward for use of a complete set of fair books and a scrapbook her mother, Mrs. Peter Cameron, kept. “I’m sure without these, my sources of information would have been very slim.”