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South Shore Exhibition readies for 127th year

The horse-pull competitions have become a tradition at the South Shore Exhibition. Mikayla Halliday
The horse-pull competitions have become a tradition at the South Shore Exhibition. Mikayla Halliday - Contributed

The South Shore Exhibition or “The Big Ex” is the largest agricultural exhibition in Nova Scotia and will be held this year from July 24 to 29 at 50 Exhibition Dr. in Bridgewater.

One of the region’s flagship summertime events, it was in 1891 when the first exhibition was held in Bridgewater. Ever since, the event has taken place every year with the exception of 1939, when the Canadian military took over the grounds to train the West Nova Scotia Battalion.

Organizers say this year’s exhibition will not only feature many of the traditional attractions and events, but will also incorporate many new activities that they believe will be instant crowd-pleasers. Tom Mailman, president of the exhibition board of directors, has been involved with the exhibition in various volunteer positions for more than 40 years and during that time, he says he has seen many changes at the event, but no matter what takes place, the ultimate goal is to create an event that will excite and entertain the crowds.

“I’ve been coming to the ex ever since I was a kid and I’ve always loved it,” he says. “It gets in your blood … it’s part of the area’s culture and I can’t imagine a Saturday evening of exhibition week and not walking the grounds. I just can’t think about that.”

As The Big Ex is about to celebrate its 127th anniversary, Mailman agrees that it has become more challenging to maintain the event because, as society has evolved, so, too, have the obstacles that these types of events are now facing.

“It is a struggle every year,” he explains. “I wouldnever like to see a time when the exhibition does not exist anymore because it’s such a large part of our lives and history here on the South Shore, but there are many challenges to keeping things going.”

Included in those challenges, as one might expect, he says, are the costs of running such a large event and those associated with maintaining a large infrastructure. Then, Mailman adds, there are issues around traditional competitions such as the ox and horse pull.

“These types of competitions are a large part of The Big Ex and they’ve been a feature for many, many decades,” he says. “But today, there are animal rights issues, and while we understand that, it does mean we have [to] adjust how we do things to make sure we are living up to modern standards and expectations.”

Financially, Mailman says, they don’t exist to make a profit, but just to cover their costs and their ultimate goal each year is to break even.

“We’re only two or three days of steady rain away from bankruptcy,” he explains, pointing out that while they try really hard to keep admission costs at an affordable rate, it is necessary to raise sufficient funds to keep things going.

Last year, the total attendance was 45,000 and Mailman says they hope to not only match that number this year, but also surpass it by a few thousand. At its peak in the 1970s, the Bridgewater Exhibition averaged around 70,000 people a year. That was the heyday, he points out.

“But we’re not likely to ever see those numbers again,” Mailman says, noting that the exhibition not only faces rising costs, but also competition from other activities and events. “That means we have to address those things that need to change and evolve with the times. We try to offer a good show while also keeping it affordable.”

A description on the Tourism Nova Scotia website describes the South Shore Exhibition as such: “We are here to bring the fun back to the summer by offering good, old-fashioned horse and oxen pulls daily, light horse competitions, show horse events, arts and crafts, 4-H, beef and dairy displays, rabbit and poultry displays, petting barn, music and performances from local groups in our Main Building, vendors selling their wares, big name country music Saturday and rock on Friday on our Main Stage, and the parade always kicks off the week on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

“We have the South Shore Idol singing competition for ages 13 to 18, Little Kid’s Got Talent for ages 12 and under, Strongman Competition, Firefighter’s Challenge, Kids day (Wednesday) with face painter/balloon twister/

entertainment specifically for the kids, free admission everyday for kids 7 and under, Campbell’s Midway has the rides and games, there are many food vendors available to satisfy any appetite, and so much more. There is something for everyone in the family.”

This year’s featured performers include the Spinney Brothers’ last public performance on Thursday evening, the Stanfields on Friday evening and Canadian country music sensation, The Road Hammers, on Saturday evening.In addition to the entertainment and attractions, Mailman says they have undertaken many improvements and upgrades throughout the grounds and infrastructure, including renovations to all bathroom facilities, installation of showers in the 4-H building, painting throughout the grounds, a facelift to the beer barn and relocating some displays.

“Everything we’ve done was to make the facilities cleaner and safer for the public,” Mailman says. “We’re excited to welcome this year’s Big Ex and we are all hoping for nice weather, but that’s one thing we can’t control.”

However, he quickly adds, “Even if the weather is not perfect, the show must go on.”

Gwen Olmstead, exhibition manager, agrees with Mailman that this year’s event will feature many changes, additions and upgrades.

“We are very excited about this year’s lineup,” she says, noting that one thing they’ve done, despite rising costs, is kept the admission at affordable levels — $8 for an adult (13 and up), $10 on Friday night and $15 all day Saturday. Children between eight and 12 are admitted for $7 and children under seven have free admission when accompanied by an adult. There is also a seniors price and children under 12 will enjoy free admission all day Wednesday.

“We have a big week lined up,” Olmstead says, pointing out that the board is hoping to surpass last year’s attendance figures. To accomplish that, she says, they have revamped and reimagined many of their attractions and the overall lineup. She encourages everyone to review the schedule to see the exciting “and cool things” being offered.

Both Olmstead and Mailman agree there were some issues with last year’s Sunday lineup that featured a demolition derby, truck pull and monster trucks. This year, they believe they have taken steps to correct those issues with a July 6 registration deadline for the demolition derby. Olmstead explains, depending upon registration, they will decide after that date if the demolition derby will happen.

One other thing Olmstead stresses with each edition of the exhibition is the widespread support they receive from the community and businesses throughout the region. “We could not do it without that support and there are just too many people to thank individually.”

However, she did want to single out Harry Freeman and Sons Limited in Greenfield for donating all the wood used to repair the floors in the beef barns. “We were looking at a significant cost to replace those floors and it may not have happened without this donation,” Olmstead says. “We are grateful to all our sponsors and to everyone who helps to make the exhibition possible.”

For people like Arthur Young from Branch LaHave in Lunenburg County, attending the exhibition is an annual summertime tradition. He first displayed a heifer at the event 71 years ago and says he hasn’t missed an exhibition since then.

“The exhibition has always been a very important part of my life as it is for many, many other people,” Young says. “I can’t imagine not going.”

While he says he has seen many changes over the years, especially in the event’s physical size, he points out that one thing remains the same — it has always been a good venue to connect with family and friends.

“It was a lot smaller years ago, but even after all these years it’s still a good, safe place for families to go and spend some quality time,” he says.

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