The joys (and lessons) of a slow day: the Madoc Fair horse pull

Madoc Fair horse pull

The home team: Troy Wickens of Madoc (holding the reins; and I believe that is Brian Ramsay of Queensborough helping him) in the light-horse pull.

The Madoc Fair‘s horse and pony pull last Saturday – the “drawing match,” as we used to call it in the old days – was supposed to start at 11 a.m. It said so on all the posters that we’d seen around town, and in the double-page advertisements in the local newspapers, one of which I’d torn out and brought with me for reference.

Raymond and I had got to Queensborough late the night before, having started our trip at the end of a long workday in Montreal. By the time we’d heated up and eaten our usual late-Friday-night-at-the-Manse dinner (frozen pizza, accompanied by a welcome glass of red wine), it was way, way past midnight. So it was a bit of a struggle, for me at least, to be awake and showered and alert and at the fairgrounds before 11 a.m.

You could tell things were just getting rolling at the fair at that hour. The crowds were light and the rides hadn’t yet started on the midway; no one was lining up for candy floss, and only a few people were taking in the display of antique steam engines. The team of taffy-rollers at the Ellis Taffy truck were just getting started in advance of the taffy-loving hordes that would come. The 4-H cattle showing hadn’t started yet; the young handlers of the animals were washing (and even vacuuming) them in preparation as we passed by on our bustle over to the area where the horse and pony pull was supposed to happen, so as to be there by 11 a.m. Which we were. And what was doing? Not a thing.

Same deal at 11:15. We were getting antsy: Are we in the right place? What’s going on?

Typical city folk. Typical clock-driven, time-pressed (or so we like to think) city folk. All we had to do was be patient.

Things started rolling a little after 11:30, when the woman who ably served as MC for the event announced that the first round would be for light ponies and that their owners could bring them to the draw area. At last!

Of course, being one of those typical impatient city people, I was eager to see the heavy horses and hoped it wouldn’t be long before it was their turn. Raymond had never been to a horse-drawing match before (or, as he pronounces it in his Boston accent, hoss-drawing match), and so as we watched the light ponies I happily recounted how back in the day the event was easily one of the main attractions of the fair, held on Friday or Saturday night – I’m not sure which it was – and bringing in huge crowds. (How times have changed, and not, I would say, for the better. Now the prime Saturday-night attraction – and it is an attraction; thousands of people come – is a demolition derby.) The heavy horses were the star attraction of that star event; people loved to watch the big teams try to pull several tons’ worth of weight.

We sat and watched the whole light-ponies event, but contrary to my impatient expectations, it was not over quickly to make room for the big boys. It takes time for each team of ponies to try pulling a light load, and then a slightly heavier load, and then a heavier one still, and so on. With all the teams pulling the weights successfully for the first several rounds – so none eliminated – I realized that this was going to last considerably longer than I’d thought.

But it was worth staying to the end, because the high drama comes when it’s down to the last two or three teams and the weights get really heavy. Unlike in the early rounds, the teams often can’t pull the load the prescribed distance in just one go; they get two tries and if they don’t make it, they’re out. Adding to the excitement is the fact that the animals are all charged up, excited and eager to pull – we saw no sign that the pulling was a hardship for any of them; it’s what they’re trained to do, and by God they want to do it – and this can make it quite an adventure for their handlers to get them hitched to the stone boat carrying the load and then jump quickly out of the way as they start pulling with all their might.

So we stayed and watched as a lanky young man and his lanky young assistant (his brother, I think) and their team from Thomasburg took the top prize. “Now, the big ones,” I thought to myself.

But no. The next round was announced as being light horses, and there were a whole slew of teams. And that was to be followed by the heavy ponies, and then would come the heavy horses.

Aha. This was clearly not going to be an event that lasted as long as, say, the average movie. Or a Madonna concert, for that matter. This was slow-moving entertainment.

Impatient, multi-tasky people that we are, we decided to go do some necessary errands in downtown Madoc while the light horses were doing their thing. We figured we’d get back just in time for the big horses.

So off we went, and we were gone well over an hour. And back we came, only to discover – the light horses still doing their thing. The pace is slooooooow.

So we did the fair. We bought hamburgers and perhaps the best French fries we’ve ever eaten from the booth operated by the folks at the Madoc Baptist Church (the same booth that for decades – until a couple of years ago, when there just weren’t enough people to do it any more – had been operated by St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough). We looked at poultry and sheep and goats and rabbits and baby water buffalo, and prize-winning squashes and watermelons and beets and carrots, and jams and maple syrup and cakes and pies and squares, and photographs, and quilts and crocheting. We bought candy floss and a candy apple and taffy from the legendary Ellis operation of Trenton (here is a great article about them from the excellent Hastings County magazine Country Roads). We looked at the exhibits by commercial vendors set up in the arena: The “Bringing Internet to the Middle of Nowhere” booth was of interest, as were (for Raymond) some big shiny new trucks from a local dealership. Raymond bought a cowboy hat and I bought a sundress, and we both bought organic garlic from Elly from Railway Creek Farms near Cooper.

We saw what had been billed as a sheep-herding exhibition that turned out to be a duck-herding exhibition. You really couldn’t make this stuff up, but I have proof! Here’s the video:

In short, we did everything there was to do. (If you’d like to see still more of the fair, here is a video done by CHTV, the local cable station in Madoc.) And then we went back to the drawing match, which was moseying along at its own sedate pace.

As the day went on, the number of spectators sitting on the wooden bandstand benches and the terraced flat rocks, and leaning on the wire fence that lined the drawing track, gradually grew larger. People sat down with people they knew, and we overheard slow and leisurely conversations taking place around us: commentary on the horses and their handlers and the action generally. Talk about the fair, and the astounding pie selection at the Madoc Baptist Church booth. Discussion of whether they might head to the Port Hope Fall Fair, about 60 miles west, the next day. Shooting the breeze. Taking it easy. No one in a hurry. The horses are still pulling. It’s mid-afternoon. The weather is fine. We’re moving on to another round.

Completely contrary to my expectations, the heavy horses were not the best part of the event; the heavy ponies, the second-to-last act, were. Those sturdy ponies showed more interest than the big horses did in getting the job done. We were particularly taken with the eventual winners, a team from Bancroft called Bob and Scout (and unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the name of their very able – and clearly, and deservedly, proud – owner). Not only were they the only team to “take the boat out all the way” (pull the weight the required distance) on their first try every time, but they were terrific fun to watch as they were driven back to the side of the track after each successful pull – totally chuffed with themselves.

Bob and Scout in action

Bob and Scout from Bancroft in action (driven by Calvin Stein) …

Bob and Scout getting their ribbons

… and getting the red ribbon for their first-place finish in the heavy-ponies category. They were our favourites of the day.

The afternoon wore on. At one point, maybe an hour before the pull finally came to an end, as I was vaguely listening in on the quiet, unrushed discussions taking place around me and the announcer telling us whether the latest team and handler had taken the boat out all the way and the bandstand performer off in the distance singing Early Morning Rain, and as I was meanwhile leafing through the guide to the fair and seeing how many names I recognized in the list of past recipients of the Agricultural Service Diploma (“awarded for personal effort and dedication in the furthering of the aims and purposes of the Madoc Agricultural Society,” which runs the fair), I noticed that a gentle breeze was rustling my hair. And I realized how understatedly perfect this day had been.

It dawned on me that I hadn’t sat quietly watching and enjoying a slow-moving thing like this – the entire event lasted more than five hours – for longer than I could remember. And I also hadn’t had such an unhurried, unstressed, undemanding day since a long, long time ago.

It was kind of a magical moment. Slowed down by the horse pull at the Madoc Fair. Well, it was time something did it.

9 thoughts on “The joys (and lessons) of a slow day: the Madoc Fair horse pull

  1. This is a wonderful post, Katherine–I’m with you in my completely unironic love for country fairs. (True country fairs with quilts and lots of actual farm animals and prizes for the bean that looks most like a letter of the alphabet.) We’re fresh off a day at the Lindsay fair, where I used to love catching the heavy horse pull, an event my citified friends thought must be cruel. This year the big attraction was the RCMP Musical Ride, which was a perfectly acceptable substitute. By the way, you’re adding fuel to a debate between Valerie (my sister and another cousin of Katherine’s for those of you not related to us) and me about what colour first-prize ribbons should be. Remember how in Charlotte’s Web and everywhere else, including Valerie’s fair in Duncan, B.C., (where she won first prize for her chocolate almond toffee a few weeks ago, by the way) first place means a blue ribbon? Well, in Lindsay, and apparently Madoc, too, first place is indicated with a red ribbon. Discuss. And my apologies if this all sounds like Stuart McLean-style nausea-inducing reminiscing, but I’m an unabashed fan of spending a day running into people, checking out whose preserves and crafts placed well, eating food made by volunteers from a local church, and whamming into my kids on the bumper cars.

    • You raise a very interesting question, Nancy! (That would be the question of what colour the prizewinning fair ribbon should be.) Fortunately I have some contacts in the fair world, in both the Queensborough-Madoc area and also in Port Hope, and I plan to make some inquiries and get to the bottom of things. My suspicion is that the blue-ribbon tradition comes from south of the border; witness Charlotte’s Web and – in another realm altogether – Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. If blue ribbon meant second place, they surely wouldn’t have named it that! But in what corners of the country, or continent, does red take precedence, I wonder?

      Ah, the important questions in life.

  2. Oh, I can remember so many years when we had rain when Madoc Fair was on. As kids, we would be so disappointed. It seemed like we could count on rain on two important dates: fair day and Hallowe’en evening. The Tilt-a-whirl was my favourite ride there, and I can remember the lunches put on by the church women. I remember a huge barrel of tea — biggest teapot in the world! I also recall one year when a particular show was part of the fair, much to the shock of many people: the strippers!

    • The Tilt-a-Whirl is still there! But it’s funny that you remember rain at the fair; I have to say that my memories of it are all full of good weather. (And BTW strippers – yikes! I never heard about THAT particular incident.) I do believe that back in the day we were actually given a day off school for the fair – it was that important. Does that ring a bell with you?

      • Oh, yes, we got a day off from school, too. So, imagine how our excitement faded when we woke up to find it was raining. Now, the strippers were exotic dancers, dressed in skimpy outfits. They had built a stage for them, and they would come out (right in front of the Tilt-a-Whirl, believe it or not) and then would prance around and then entice men to come inside. Well, I can remember older men being quite upset and saying things like, “that sort of thing might be OK for a big city but not in a small place like this.” I mean, imagine having that “sort of thing” going on near the UCW building! Glad to see they still have the old-fashioned taffy. Nobody knows what I’m talking about when I describe it. “Oh, do you mean fudge?”

      • Yes, that act did not return for the following year. And if you haven’t seen them either, then I guess they were never allowed back. It was one thing for parents to worry about their young boys seeing something naughty, but to worry about Grandpa was another thing!

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