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South Arm United Church Country Fair turns 60

By Don Fennell

Published 3:24 PDT, Tue September 17, 2019

Last Updated: 2:13 PDT, Wed May 12, 2021

Steeped in tradition, but reflective of change, the South Arm United Church’s annual country fair will mark 60 years as a community mainstay Saturday.

And as the popular tradition enters its seventh decade, memories abound.

Like the year pie makers baked over 1,300 pies, but none actually made it to the fair—the congregation bought them all beforehand. 

The contests of children competing with flowers or produce they grew.

Or the horseshoe competitions that always featured a live turkey from Edwards Turkey Farm. If you won, you’d get a turkey—not live, of course.

Pioneer volunteers

Gordon and Linda Tolman have been there from the beginning in 1959.

“At its birth the fair was a simple and small affair driven mostly by farmers in the congregation,” recalls Linda. “There was lots of fruits and veggies for sale, a hayride and some games and activities for the children. It was open and welcoming to all, something that hasn’t changed over the years.”

In the early days, Gordon sold veggies. He remembers unloading 100-pound bags of potatoes to put into smaller, more manageable containers.

“We used to have a cake baking contest, and one year Gordon won for his boiled raisin cake,” Linda adds.

The fair has continued to grow, and there are now activities that would amaze pioneers. But Linda says the support of the community has never wavered.

“We have an amazing amount of support, both in volunteering and coming out, spending the day and enjoying all the country fair offers.”

The Tolmans also appreciate the opportunity to welcome back people who’ve since moved from the community, or who only come every year for the fair.

“It keeps us busy preparing all summer long.”

A faithful congregation

Busy helping to organize this year’s fair, Olwen Walker has been a devoted member of the congregation for the better part of quarter century.

“I absolutely love the fair,” she says. “It is a great opportunity for all faiths, beliefs and cultures to come together and have a wholesome, inexpensive good time. It attracts all sorts of interesting people and gives neighbours a chance to chat with those they don’t see often.”

Walker works in the “Junque Tent” and sees and talks with many of the same people every year. But she only sees them at the fair and “would miss that exchange dearly.”

“Plus, every year I meet new and interesting people,” she says.

Describing the fair as a large secular event, Walker says it contributes to the church by encouraging the congregation to be more welcoming and outgoing. If further supports the church’s outreach goals.

“Mostly, though, I think people just love the novelty and friendliness of it. It isn’t often you have an event of this type that isn’t (organized by the city), or that you find a church that actually has a hay field that is used once a year for a open-to-the-community event.”

And what started as a way to help families access affordable clothing and household items, the fair still provides that service.

Neighbours helping neighbours

Prior to the 1950s the South Arm United Church congregation was a mostly rural one, notes Walker. With the opening of Crown Zellerbach in 1955, the area underwent a rapid change and many new subdivisions were created. Suddenly, there were many new families and neighbours.

With the influx of families, and lack of large gathering spaces nearby, the church decided to build a larger facility. This also helped establish groups like the Kiwanis Club, Scouts and pre-schools whose memberships were increasing rapidly.

This proved, Walker notes, to be the perfect opportunity for neighbours to meet and have fun.

Money was tight for many families, so in addition to games and entertainment, local produce and used items were sold at bargain prices.

“When told prices are too low, the overwhelming response of the congregate is “it’s not about the money, it’s about the serve and fair prices for people who don’t have much.”

Recycling 1950s style

Walker says the fair was also advanced for its time. In the 1950s organizers were already practicing recycling by reducing and reusing, a philosophy that carries on today with pre-owned items for reuse by new owners. Attendees are also encouraged to go green by bringing their own shopping bags.

Livestock displays, petting zoos, bouncy castles and hot air balloon rides, even antique car displays, are just a sampling of the entertainment through the years. That’s on top of the appearance of many local musicians, dancers and singers, as well as the customary crafts, home baking and carnival-style games.

And true to its roots, the fair is blessed with volunteers from near and far.

“We even have a volunteer coming from Russia this year to help on fair day,” says Walker.

From good bargains to good fun to good memories, the annual fair is a Richmond tradition. One which the community continues to enthusiastically embrace.

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