The Fredericton Exhibition, familiar to fairgoers today, traces its roots back to the energetic initiatives of Sir Howard Douglas. Serving as the Governor of New Brunswick from 1824 to 1831, he emerged as a stellar administrator during the Colonial period. His support for road construction, agriculture, and education significantly contributed to the province’s development. He was the catalyst behind New Brunswick’s inaugural exhibition.
On February 17, 1825, Sir Howard convened a meeting at the Province Hall in Fredericton with the aim of spurring agricultural progress within the province. The gathering included elected legislative members and esteemed citizens from all counties. During his opening remarks, Sir Howard proposed the creation of a central agricultural society. A formation committee was established during this meeting, with Hon. Judge Botsford as the chairman and other notable individuals such as Harry Peters, Col. John Allen, Samuel Nevers, Peter Stubs, Hugh Monroe, Charles Simonds, David B. Wetmore, William Crane, and Samuel Scovil as members.
During the follow-up meeting on March 5, 1825, the committee presented a report which laid the foundation for the New Brunswick Agricultural and Immigrant Society. Chief Justice Bliss became the president, with Hon. Judge Botsford and Hon. Thomas Baillie serving as vice-presidents. Ward Chipman, Peter Fraser, Harry Peters, Peter Stubs, and Jedediah Slason were added to the executive. Sir Howard was named the society’s patron and announced a grant of $25 from the King’s casual revenue to support an Agricultural Society in each county of the province.
On February 19, 1827, during the Agricultural & Immigrant Society’s annual meeting, the members agreed to organize a Provincial Cattle Show at the Fredericton Race Course, set for October 9 that year.
By the mid-1800s, the Exhibition had become a central event for the Capital City. The connection with the Provincial Government remained intact, and a building named the Colonial Palace was constructed in 1852, directly facing the Old Province Hall.
When William Watts designed the pavilion for the grand Provincial Exhibition of 1852, he likely didn’t envision that an art gallery would replace his early cultural project over a hundred years later. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery now stands where the pavilion once did.
The Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Edmund Head, was patron of the Exhibition, and Hon. George Frederick Street was president.
William Watts at the time was editor of the weekly called “The Headquarters”, published by James Paul Agutta Phillips in a frame building at the corner of Queen Street and Camperdowne Lane. In addition to designing the Pavilion, Watts also composed “The Song of the Great Exhibition”, which was set to music by Col. S.K. Foster of Saint John and arranged for the Masonic Band by Micheal White.
Drawing inspiration from London’s Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851, renowned for its visible structure and glass expanses, the local cross-shaped Palace was architected by Matthew Stead for $28,000 in 1864. The dome, boasting an 86-feet diameter, was the province’s largest wooden framework at that time. The east-end Ladies Gallery and the west-end Music Gallery could each accommodate 100 people.
John McInnis, the manager of the newly established gas company, was responsible for the lighting. Founded only in 1850, the gas lights were a recent innovation. The palace was naturally lit during the day, while 650 gas fixtures and lamps, held high by 24 statues, illuminated the building in the evening. Chandeliers were formed from wooden dragons, facing all cardinal directions, with flames flickering from each mouth. Below, heraldic griffins projected gas light onto display shelves. Unfortunately, the structure succumbed to a fire in 1877.
To the many visitors arriving in Fredericton via riverboats, the Exhibition Pavilion would have been an impressive sight. Its lower structure was built from boards, the upper portions from glass, and the roof was canvas-covered. A 12-foot Britannia statue, supported by the Lion and the Unicorn, overlooked the main entrance. Her trident’s tip soared sixty-five feet above the ground. Sixty flags fluttered over the Pavilion’s roof.
The porch of Province Hall marked the start of a corridor linking the older building to the Pavilion. The many offices and rooms of the Old Province Hall offered additional exhibit space.
The Pavilion was overflowing with a variety of exhibits, including horticultural produce, agricultural tools, cheese, honey, leather, ship’s furniture, and much more. Approximately 1,000 participants made over 4,000 individual entries.
The grand opening took place at noon on Tuesday, October 5. A single cannon round, fired by militia artillerymen, signaled the start of an impressive procession. The 72nd Regiment’s band and pipers, the Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, led the procession.
Following them were uniformed Fire Companies from Fredericton and Saint John, including fire engines. The Masonic fraternity in full regalia brought up the rear. The local Fire Companies hosted a luncheon at the New Market Hall for their Saint John visitors after the parade.
At precisely two o’clock, Sir Edmund Head, escorted by a Highland Guard of Honor, entered the Pavilion to a 19-gun salute. Hon. George Frederick Street, as president of the New Brunswick Society, welcomed the Lieutenant-Governor.
Sir Edmund and Lady Head, along with their entourages, took their places of honor on a dais located under the Music Gallery. A city-wide church choir filled the Ladies Gallery, balanced by the full band of the 72nd Regiment in the Music Gallery.
As the blend of brass, reeds, drums, and vocals burst into the National Anthem, the occasion became a memorable musical event. As recorded in aged newsprint:
“At the moment the voices and instruments merged in the strains of the National Anthem, radiant sunshine flooded the scene”. This, no doubt, was seen as a divine endorsement of the Great Exhibition. The powerful ensemble of band and voices subsequently performed the Doxology and The Song of the Great Exhibition.
The grand opening was followed by the customary speeches and a tour of the Exhibition.
On Wednesday, October 6, the cattle show took place at the Grove, a picturesque, tree-covered area that once stretched northwest from today’s Queens Square. A flower and evergreen-decorated arch marked the main avenue.
That evening, Hon. L.A. Wilmot delivered a lecture at the New Market Hall, attended by the New Brunswick Society’s officers and the general public.
On Thursday, athletic sports were held at the Grove. Simultaneously, a regatta took place, where gig races were deemed “very fair” and canoe races were reported to be excellent.
In 1881, a second, albeit smaller, Exhibition Building was erected. The new structure was situated west of Smythe Street and behind Saunders, roughly on the current fairgrounds. It was designed by Croft and Camp of Saint John and was an oblong structure measuring 200 X 75 feet with flanking sub-structures on the long sides. It featured a central tower 100 feet high and a 17-foot gallery circling the interior, a total distance of 550 feet.
The musicians’ gallery was elevated four feet above the rest of the gallery, and four grand staircases linked the two floors. This building, like its predecessor, was destroyed by fire on July 11, 1882. Quoting Mayor Fenety: “The second Palace arose upon the ashes of its predecessor out of funds provided by the Government, the City, and private subscription… Despite the previous experience of not having a caretaker living on the premises, this oversight was sadly repeated. Furthermore, no insurance was taken out beyond the City’s interest in the building, which was $4,000, and upon which $3,000 protection was placed”.
A third building was built by William J. Scarr, one of Fredericton’s leading building contractors. However, he absconded just before completing his biggest project – the 1901 Provincial Exhibition Building.
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