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Fun On The Milk Run

“We would get home after one of the fairs, and say we weren’t going to go the next day, and the next day would come and off we’d go to the next show. It just didn’t seem right not to go. We were devastated if we didn’t get to them all.”

BERTHA BROWN

Some folklorists say the annual “milk run” got its name because people had to hurry to milk their cows before heading off to one of the six fairs on the circuit during the third week of July.

Others say it’s because of the fair-a-day schedule. Still others believe it relates to the number of dairy cows that had to be milked along the way.

Whatever the reason, the “milk run” is an ongoing annual adventure for generations of families who enjoy the camaraderie of moving from town to town and show to show to exhibit their prized stock.

The run consists of a series of sequential rural one-day fairs held within 10 to 25 miles of one another, held each day of the week from Monday until Saturday.

It starts with Oak River on Monday, Strathclair on Tuesday, Shoal Lake on Wednesday, followed by Hamiota on Thursday, and Harding on Friday. The week winds up in Oak Lake on Saturday.

Although the fairs on the “milk run” have been in existence for well over 100 years, it is uncertain just how long they have been tagged with this name. It is believed that they have held this specific sequence and dates for the entire time with very few exceptions.

The entire route from start to finish is less than 100 miles long. All the fairs boast a light horse and pony show, cattle show, gymkhana events, schoolwork and home-living section, children’s activities, and free pancake breakfast and all but one still have a draft horse show. Some have a parade, ball game, beer gardens, 4-H beef show, and a miniature horse show as well.

Even as the towns along the way have shrunk, their annual fairs continue to draw more than 200 head of horses and cattle, along with their owners, handlers, riders, teamsters, family and crew.

If you can stand the test of time, lack of sleep, and endure the hot weather, bugs, and hard work, you can survive the milk run. It’s not unusual to see the same exhibitor back to travel the circuit year after year.

Bertha Brown, now of Virden, Manitoba remembers travelling on the milk run after she and her husband Ken Brown were married in 1953. Between them and Ken’s brother Don Brown, they had one truck and had to make two trips to get all of their horses to the fairs.

Her recollection of why they called it the “milk run” was because you had to hurry and milk the cows and “run” to the fair, and then “run” home at the end of the day and milk again before doing the same thing all over again the next day. The fairs were all close enough to home that they could do this, hence the name “milk run.”

Some folks think that it is because the fairs are consecutive days and close together, and along with this thought is that it is something you do every day, just like milking the cows.

Its origins might remain a mystery, but one thing is certain, it IS an endurance test.

“I don’t know why we used to do it,” says Brown of attending the fairs on the “milk run.”

“We would get home after one of the fairs, and say we weren’t going to go the next day, and the next day would come and off we’d go to the next show. It just didn’t seem right not to go. We were devastated if we didn’t get to them all.”

The Browns are one of the fourth-generation families you’ll find on the run.

Reg Madsen of Hamiota remembers showing Clydesdales on the “milk run” 52 years ago with his Uncle Bill, although he does not recall the term “milk run” being used to refer to the circuit until about 30 to 35 years ago. He has shown on the “milk run” fairly consecutively, first with his uncle, and then with his own family, and has only missed a few years.

Folks come from all walks of life and with all types of livestock to take part. Some book their holidays more than a year in advance. Accommodations range from lavish motorhomes or trailers with extravagant living quarters, to tents or sleeping in the back of the horse trailer.

Their means of hauling also varies considerably from semis and trailer vans to homemade stock trailers. Even though the outfits are as varied as the people themselves, there is one thing that is certain. These folks do it, or have done it out of sheer joy for a job well done, pride for their horses and what they can do, and the thrill of competition. On top of that it is the camaraderie and friendships they experience, and the people met at this series of shows have even been described as an extended family that folks sometimes see only once a year.

For the breeder/exhibitors like Madsen, the reasons they keep coming back are perhaps different than that of a regular exhibitor. “I often wonder why I keep doing this,” he laughs. “I guess for me, it is to keep trying to compete and bring out better horses each year. I am trying to better myself and the stock I raise, and it is a challenge to see if you can do that. There also is a certain obligation attached, you don’t want to let people down, especially when you’ve been doing it year after year.”

Regardless of the reasons why a person was and still is willing to put themselves through this gruelling marathon, it can be agreed upon that the “milk run” is indeed a unique event that is specific to southwest Manitoba. Perhaps the most amazing part of this is that these one-day fairs still continue to exist and thrive despite a decline in rural population and today’s economy.

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