Sights worth looking at: Agricultural Exhibitions in Nova Scotia

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I have just returned from the Halifax County Exhibition, in its 130th year, where I showed my family’s balsam fir Christmas trees. Christmas trees have only been part of exhibitions in Nova Scotia since the mid twentieth century, but each year as I walk our tree farm looking for “exhibition trees,” and later as I debate the merits of the judges’ decisions, I am part of a tradition dating to the earliest exhibitions in the province in the eighteenth century. Like all previous exhibitors I also participate in a culture of what anthropologist Cristina Grasseni has called skilled visions: situated visual knowledges acquired by formal or informal training. At exhibitions these include the ability of dairy farmers to recognize the beauty of a Holstein according to ever-shifting breed standards, or of apple growers to distinguish between a McIntosh and a Cortland at a glance.

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Enterprising photographers knew that “the sight of … cattle” could be a commodity. Here Lewis Rice advertises his services for photos of animals, trees, fruit, etc., in the prize book of the 1887 Hants and Kings County Exhibition. (Private collection of the Hants County Exhibition, Windsor, NS)

Agricultural exhibitions are one place where a range of skilled rural visions are performed and taught to a wider public. In the late nineteenth century this training was an explicit part of exhibitionary culture. Praising the 1881 Lunenburg County Exhibition, the Lunenburg Progress suggested that “the sight of some hundreds of thoroughbred cattle … was one that would have done good to every farmer in the Province, if it were only possible to bring it before every farmer’s eyes.”[1]

In this period, exhibitions in Nova Scotia were not yet showcases for the products of mature agricultural communities; they were intended to be opportunities for edification and reform. Exhibitions were part of broader efforts to bring rural economies in line with models of productivity, efficiency, and specialization demanded by a capitalist market. The transformations sought by these reform efforts were a direct attack on the preferred practices of seasonally-determined occupational pluralism that characterized the lives of many rural Nova Scotians.

Beans, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014

As the New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle explained in 1895, all exhibitions were premised on a belief in “the educational effect of seeing the best of everything.”[2] Looking was understood to be beneficial in and of itself, but more importantly, exhibitions were training opportunities wherein farmers and others would be taught how to see. Well-bred animals, like carefully grown fruits and vegetables, ingenious machinery, or impeccably stitched quilts were all, as the Eastern Chronicle put it, “sights worth looking at.”[3]

Exhibitions were central to the formalization of agricultural aesthetics across the nineteenth century, and debates about judging, breed standards, and visual specialization peppered the agricultural columns of newspapers. But often the animals, fruits, and vegetables exhibited in the late nineteenth century challenged even the most experienced observers. Adding the marginal note “Pumpkin or Squash” the secretary of the 1891 Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition in Halifax recorded the following item in his minute book:

Mr Harris brought up the question of a pumpkin exhibited by Geo McIntosh which the Judges looked upon as a squash. Mr H said he was satisfied the exhibit was a pumpkin and the prize of $1 was ordered to be paid.[4]

Plymouth Rock rooster, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014.
Plymouth Rock rooster, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014. The breed was developed in the 19th century.

The fact is, very few people anywhere in 1891 could say what a pumpkin was with much certainty. The same problem arose at a pumpkin weigh-off in Truro in 1895 where “a suspicious looking specimen of the ‘Squash-pumpkin’ variety” caused some concern.[5] The standards for a wide range of new, “improved” species of fruits, vegetables, and livestock were formalized during the nineteenth century, and more were still to be invented.

The official gaze of the judges was a cornerstone of all exhibitions, but this was only one way of seeing at these events. Visitors with a variety of visual competencies and cultural priorities attended exhibitions to see and judge for themselves. For instance, reports in the press consistently celebrated the impressive size of vegetables: monster cabbages, massive cauliflowers—these were the entries that caught the public’s attention. These divergent visual priorities continue at exhibitions today. Every year the Christmas tree competition includes a People’s Choice vote, its results often at odds with those of the judges.

Balsam fir Christmas tree, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014
Balsam fir Christmas tree, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014

And already by the late nineteenth century, many critics were complaining that the gaze of exhibition audiences was a distracted one, with midways, advertising booths, and circus acts drawing attention away from the agricultural displays. Rather than something new, this uneasy combination of cows and carnies has been a reality for more than a century and exhibitions have always been the subject of many gazes, most of which have not adhered to the aesthetic preferences of judges and farmers.

Horse pull, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014
Horse pull, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014

Like many such events, the Halifax County Exhibition, which was never particularly big, is now smaller than it was decades ago. But as I watched the audience cheer for the horse pull this evening, with the flashing lights and canned music of the midway in the background, I could not help feeling its importance. Exhibitions are yearly reunions, educational events, and celebrations for rural communities. And they are more than this. Whether or not they eat cotton candy and ride the Ferris wheel, spectators at exhibitions see, smell, and hear livestock, and they have an opportunity to appreciate up close the farmed products (including Christmas trees) grown in their own county or province.

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Young farmers tend to their Holsteins, Halifax County Exhibition, 2014

This feels particularly important at a moment when significant concern is being expressed about the disconnect between farmers and the general public. However, it is not a new sentiment; the opening address at the 1889 Hants County Exhibition celebrated exhibitions “because they brought the farmer and citizen into close connection, and the knowledge thus gained must not only be advantageous to them but also to the public generally.”[6]

It is likely that many of the spectators this evening did not know the breeds of the horses pulling cinder blocks across the ring, but exhibitions nevertheless offer a venue for the wider public to access a culture that is otherwise largely inaccessible to them, and to recognize it as a living culture, not simply one on display in historical museums. With rather different motivations than in the nineteenth century, agricultural exhibitions continue to present “sights worth looking at.”

 

[1] Lunenburg Progress, October 4, 1881.

[2] New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle, September 26, 1895.

[3] New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle, October 19, 1882.

[4] Minutes, Provincial Exhibition Committee, October 7, 1891. Nova Scotia Archives, MG 6 Series A, vol. 1 #3.

[5] Truro Daily News, October 5, 1895.

[6] Hants Journal, n.d., 1889. Clipping in scrapbook of the West Hants Historical Society.

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Sara Spike

Sara Spike received her PhD in History from Carleton University in 2016. Her research focuses on histories of visual culture, rural places, and Atlantic Canada.

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