Long-time participants say the atmosphere of the old barns will be hard to replace as they are slated for demolition
There was something in the air at Canadian Western Agribition this year and it wasn’t just the smell of livestock.
You could feel it in the barns and see it on faces. It was in snatches of overheard conversation.
It was the bittersweetness of the last show in some of the landmark Evraz Place buildings that have hosted Agribition for 45 years.
Everyone was talking about it. The good, the bad and the ugly of the Auditorium, Exhibition Stadium, the Winter Fair building, the Harlton, Pasqua and Prairie barns, the Annex and the six other barns that would be demolished as soon as the 2015 show wound up.
It’s not the leaky roofs, inadequate plumbing and poor ventilation that people will miss, but what they found inside the walls at shows and sales.
“The atmosphere is going to be hard to replace,” said past-president Reed Andrew of Regina, whose father was among the founders of the event and who has attended all 45 shows.
“I was 14 at my first Agribition. I remember sitting way up at the top (of the Auditorium) and it was packed right full for the sale of champions. That is going to be hard to replace.”
But a new $37 million International Trade Centre, a modern, flexible building that will connect the remaining buildings at Evraz Place, will replace the old facilities in time for the 2017 show. Just how the 2016 event will roll out has yet to be determined.
The grounds already look different than they did in 1971, when Evraz Place still had a racetrack and grandstand.
“There was barn row, as we know today, Harlton, Pasqua, Annex, Winter Fair and Stadium,” Andrew said. “The Prairie (building) wasn’t even there, there was an open space. They were the old exhibition barns and that was the core of it.”
The Stadium was built in 1919 and most of the other buildings were put up in the 1950s and ’60s.
Entries for the first show were much higher than expected and a row of horse barns then located south of the Harlton Barn were pressed into service.
“I remember the volunteers and staff building eight-by-eight panels to put up for a tunnel, and there was this tunnel all the way down probably half a dozen horse barns,” Andrew said.
Tents housed cattle in some years.
The commercial cattle show began under the old racetrack because the commercial cattle barn wasn’t yet built.
“There was a time they actually chased the cattle over to the Stadium to have a show, by horseback,” he said.
The Stadium, then Regina’s primary arena, was the main venue for shows and the rodeo. This was before the Agridome, now known as the Brandt Centre, was built in the later ’70s and became the centerpiece for a time.
“I remember one year in the Stadium, the Shorthorn show had to stop so they could have the rodeo and then at midnight they came back and finished the Shorthorn show,” Andrew said.
And then there’s the Swamp, located behind the stands on the east side of the Stadium. The paint has been peeling off the beer garden walls for years and possibly the only things that have changed are beer prices and the implementation of a smoking ban.
Some might say “what happens in the Swamp, stays in the Swamp,” but it was also the site of many a business deal.
Grant Alexander of Weyburn, Sask., has shown at every Agribition.
“There was a lot of business deals done around those little tables in there,” he said. “When I heard they were knocking this all down I thought they should get a national historic site for the Swamp.”
He remembers the days of the tents and how no one complained because they wanted the show to succeed.
“These buildings hold a lot of memories,” he said, standing in the Stadium after the Shorthorn show. “These barns might be old but they’ve been part of our lives for a long time, even before Agribition started.
“I can remember as a little kid coming to Regina Bull Sale in some of these same buildings.”
He and Andrew spent one year fitting 28 head of cattle for exhibitors.
“Grant and I spent all day in the wash rack underneath the auditorium,” Andrew said. “We were young people and were in the industry. You had the opportunity to do anything you wanted.”
Alexander spent 10 years on the Agribition board and several of those on the executive.
“I’ve been feeling it all week,” he said of the air of nostalgia. “One thing that has stayed the same right from the first show is the atmosphere and just the positive feeling in the barns even when cattle prices were in the tank.”
Younger and more recent exhibitors may never have the same attachment to the buildings, but there are countless stories of what young people found inside these buildings.
Many a courtship began at the show — one year a wedding ceremony took place in the Stadium — and there are married couples who still return, with their children and their livestock.
There were five generations of Harltons working at the show this year.
Merle Thomason of Bethune, Sask., is the third generation. The Harlton Barn was built in 1965 and named for her grandfather, Charlie Harlton.
“I don’t think we have a picture that he wasn’t standing in front of it,” she laughed. “We were all very proud of it.”
She said the family had to attend the show. It was tradition.
“I remember when Agribition started and my dad coming home on the train and telling us we could have just as good a show (as the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto),” she said.
Her memories of being in the Harlton Barn are of the camaraderie.
“The sheep held half the barn and the swine held half and just the great friendships we formed,” she said.
Recognition of the Harlton barn, and the other buildings that will soon be taken down, is likely to come in the form of a collection of pictures, said Evraz Place chief executive officer Mark Allan.
And for all the reminiscing that went on during the recent show, most are ready for the change.
“In my situation, Dad being a founder, it’s kind of in my genes,” Andrew said. “We lived and breathed Agribition. It’s really rewarding to see where it was and where it’s going.”