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‘Milk Run’ fairs on hiatus

Dedicated volunteers don’t see demise of week of one-day fairs despite pandemic

One-day fairs present opportunities for youth to take hold of a lead line in the cattle or horse show ring.

A week-long series of one-day fairs in Westman, known colloquially for decades as the ‘Milk Run,’ promises to return better than ever after COVID.

For more than 75 years the week has kicked off in Oak River, moved on to Strathclair on Tuesday, shifts a few kilometres west to Shoal Lake on Wednesday and then moves on to fairs in Hamiota and Harding, before wrapping up in Oak Lake.

There is a rhythm to the week that remains constant. It begins with pancakes stacked high and coffee piping hot each morning. From wiping sweat off a brow under a cowboy hat to draining water out of rubber boots, weather forecasts also warn of thunder, lightning and hail. Teasingly being tossed into a water trough, sneezing thanks to the dust within bedding, and listening to the bleating of sheep versus counting prior to a little sleep, all formed, or form lessons learned of being a fair youngster.

It’s a glimpse back into the history of the region and its unique nature attracts lots of interest, according to Calvin Martin, past president of the Strathclair Agricultural Society. That group would have held its 134th annual fair this summer.

“Many livestock exhibitors have the Milk Run on their bucket list of things to do,” Martin said. “To take in all of the fairs is a very tiring experience but one that many people do year after year.”

Name game

Just why the circuit got the ‘Milk Run’ title is unclear.

Some say it’s because in the early years the fairs all had a distinctly dairy flavour.

Others say it’s because the exhibitors would shuttle back and forth from farm to fair, to milk their herds.

Or it could be as simple as a reference to the original use of the term, for trains that would stop at every small town to pick up farmers’ milk cans.

Regardless of the origin of the name, it’s still popular as ever, even though dairy cattle, electric milking machines, and the sweat of a dairy herdsman, has been eliminated from the education aspect of walking the barn alleys.

Organizers, exhibitors and attendees all say the fairs will continue into the future. The challenge of putting them on involves an entire community pulling together from dawn to dusk.

But at the same time, the irrevocable forces testing the mettle of the family farm, and the Prairie town also weigh on the country fair. These days, as locals say, more dogs than people live in Harding, but it’s the smallest Manitoba town to host a fair, and some say it’s the jewel of the Milk Run.

The country fair has been a totem amidst the radical social and economic quakes that have changed the landscape.

“Strathclair has lost its 4-H show at the fair – once both a dairy club and beef club – which I can remember being involved in both,” said Martin. “Swine shows, sheep shows, and now the once-popular heavy horse show have been shelved at some fairs.”

The laughter, the joy and the fun aspect have been lessened as well with the midway erased from the skyline.

“Then there were the highly competitive but friendly ball games,” added Martin. “Strathclair featured a softball tournament fair day featuring teams from Strathclair and Newdale, along with the Glossop Gophers and the Ipswich Idiots.”

With less people living in rural areas and more people working full time off the farm, it’s getting more difficult for the one-day, and especially weekday, fairs to survive. It is felt the weekend fairs will have the best chance of survival in the future.

“But I don’t see the demise of the Milk Run fairs any time soon, thanks to the people who do the planning and grunt work required,” Martin said. “I feel there will always be enough volunteers with a community spirit to help wherever needed to keep the small-town fairs going, but it will also take some good fiscal management and government financial assistance.”

For some small towns, fairs remain relevant because they fill a void left by the loss of other get-togethers. And while the death of the fair is something few people want to consider, it happens.

It can be said the saying ‘once experienced, never forgotten’ truly uplifts the value of community life through the sights and scenes of a small-town exhibition.

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