How the Canadian Open Old Time Fiddle Championship got started

July 25, 2013   ·   0 Comments

For the residents of Dufferin County, summer is an enjoyable time of the year.

It is the season for family outings, holidays, and outdoor activities in the beautiful natural landscape of this part of Ontario. During the second week of August, however, a major transformation occurs in the normally quiet and peaceful town of Shelburne. Almost overnight, the town’s population of 4000 swells approximately three-fold, as visitors arrive from all comers of North America and beyond. Suddenly, cars, trucks, and recreational vehicles of all sizes and shapes line the streets. New faces appear in the grocery store, on the sidewalks, and in the local restaurants. There is a buzz of activity at the Centre Dufferin Recreation Complex, with groups coming and going at all hours of the day and night. The appearance of Main Street, decked out with its brightly coloured flags and festive decorated storefronts, signals that something special is about to take place: the annual Canadian Open Championship Old Time Fiddle Contest!

The Fiddle Contest has been at the centre of community life in Shelburne for the past 63 years. Everyone has his or her own memories of the event and its related festivities. Those who owned houses bordering on the camping park would probably remember the crowds’ partying that carried on through the night until the early morning hours! Workers with the police force, the hospital, and the downtown stores, will likely recall their chaotic schedules and overtime hours. If you were a member of a Shelburne service club, you were busy setting up the arena, selling food, or organizing the parade. If, as a child, you watched the parade and indulged in treats at the park, you would have fond memories of the juggling clowns, live music, and the fun atmosphere.

In a small community like Shelburne, everyone is affected to some degree by the Fiddle Contest, because so many of the town’s residents dedicate their time and efforts towards the event’s success. Whatever the memory, it is surely linked to the familiar, sweet, and beautiful sound of fiddle music. Whether it was wafting from the large speakers set up downtown on Main Street, or played live by talented musicians in the camping park and at the arena, fiddle music has been at the heart of the popular annual festivities in Shelburne since 1951.

By 1951 the fiddle and fiddle music were traditions of Dufferin community life.

The fiddle continued to be the instrument of choice at community dances. Don Messer’s Jubilee was a radio staple and the CKNX Ranch Boys became favourites from the moment television arrived, outshining the popular radio. Every community had its local fiddle star. The popularity of fiddle entertainment in this part of Ontario may help explain why the Fiddle Contest found such a good home in Shelburne; but the success of the fiddle contest involved more than just finding a suitable location. Another important factor was that the Rotary Club of Shelburne developed and promoted the idea of a Fiddle Contest and worked diligently to see it come to fruition.

The Rotary Club had been contributing to community life since its inception in 1938, fundraising to support community groups, health care, and children’s charities. The fundraising projects they had sponsored were of the usual type –fun-fairs, suppers, sales of various kinds and all the other money-making schemes that were common in the 1930s and ‘40s. The main difficulty with all these projects was always the same; they all required a great deal of work for a small number of people and they never seemed to raise enough money to make the effort worthwhile. Some innovative ideas had been tried, such as a hog-calling contest in 1950, which was extremely popular with the community, but again failed to bring in much money. Another difficulty that had been discussed was that many of the fairs involved games of chance, which, though popular and good fund-raisers, brought criticism from some members.

The idea of a Shelburne Fiddle Contest was introduced by then Shelburne Royal Bank Manager Cliff Mcintosh, who had attended fiddle contests while in Western Canada. He suggested the idea to Shelburne newspaper publisher Fred Claridge, who in turn spoke to one of Dufferin County’s early ‘weekenders’ in Mulmur, Don Fairbairn.

The idea stuck long enough to be given careful consideration. Of course there were those who thought it would never work. The Rotary Club was organized into committees and there has yet to be a committee that agreed on everything! The main objection seemed to be that no one would pay to listen to a bunch of fiddlers playing when you could hear it at home for free! Others wondered who in the world would they find to act as judges and how would they provide prize money? Where would they hold the competition and who would want to enter? Despite some dissent, eventually enough Rotarians supported the idea to carry the day and the first Canadian Open Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest was on its way.

Most of the men first involved were not only Rotarians, but were also ·very busy and active men in their communities. And from year one until today, when someone got involved, you automatically got the spouse and kids too! Don Fairbairn had been one of the judges at the hog-calling contest, and was a radio broadcaster with the CBC. His program “Neighbourly News”, was heard on Sunday mornings and highlighted stories of rural activities.

When he heard of the new Rotary project, he was most supportive and suggested that the CBC might be interested in broadcasting the show.

Fairbairn’s support resulted in the CBC’s decision to work with the Shelburne Rotary Club to broadcast the Saturday night finals program and to provide guest artists to fill out the half hour of the broadcast. The CBC’s involvement in the Fiddle Contest certainly contributed to a large degree to the success of the whole venture. Radio was a popular form of entertainment around the world in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and having a live broadcast here at home in Dufferin County was truly exciting.

Hard working as they all were, the Rotarians were not musicians and it was a big job to find people capable of setting out rules and regulations. The fact that many of these regulations are still in force is a credit to those early planners. One of the first decisions made was to hold the event each year on the first weekend after the Civic Holiday in August.

The reason why this date was chosen was because the committee and Don Fairbairn set the date of the first contest for August 11, 1951, a date when the CBC had an open half hour in their program schedule. The committee henceforth decided to designate that weekend for the contest.

The competition would be held in the old Shelburne arena. The playdowns would be held on Friday afternoon and evening, with the finals taking place on Saturday night, for the CBC broadcast. A contestant entry fee of $2 was charged, with the proceeds donated to the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. (This contestant entry fee was discontinued in 1983.)

At the first contest, there was an admission charge for open seating on Friday evening of .75 cents for adults and .35 cents for children.

Reserved seats for Saturday night were sold at George Albrecht’s store on Shelburne’s Main Street for $1.00 and .75 cents for seats farther back from the stage. The admission collected by Rotarians contributed towards the rental of the hall, the contestants’ prizes, judges’ fees, and all other miscellaneous costs.

When the first fiddle contest was finally planned and the contestants had gathered together (all 44 of them), few suspected this event would become an annual tradition. That first year, local fiddlers included third place winner Lome Donaldson of Orton, Charlie Dyer of East Garafraxa, Annie Webster from the Maples, and Albert Mews of Mulmur Township.

The old arena, (located where the Shelburne Fire Hall now stands), was the scene of the event for many years, although it was not altogether suitable as a concert venue. If it rained, the noise of . the rain on the roof drowned out the sound of the fiddles. Not that the fiddlers cared! They were used to playing in all sorts of conditions, and prided themselves on being able to play through anything. The very first tune played, they say, was “The Victory Breakdown” and as one member of the audience put it, “With that as a beginning, this contest will be a success.” He was a true prophet. Stan McPherson of Amaranth Township recalled driving with his wife and son along the gravel roads to Shelburne in their 1915 Model T to attend the first Fiddle Contest.

A fiddle player himself, McPherson was curious about the event and wanted to see what all the talk was about!

All in all, over one thousand people attended the Friday evening playdowns, and on Saturday, a crowd of approximately 3000 came to hear the eight finalists chosen to play from the play downs on Friday. The event was a tremendous hit. The first Friday night M.C. was Don Steenson, a Rotarian. On Saturday night, Don Fairbairn was M.C., with producer Reid Forsee. Vince Mountford (born in Mono Township) filled in as M.C. during intermissions and as everyone knows, did not stop at that! Vince served as M.C. for the next 34 years. After the finals on Saturday night, while the judges were making up their minds, the contestants were all invited up on stage for a jamboree, part of the festivities that became special for many guests over the years. And after the winner, Mel Lavigne of Honey Harbour, had been declared, the chairs and benches were pushed back, and the audience began dancing to more toe-tapping music provided by volunteers, many of them contestants.

It was well into the wee hours of the morning before the last notes died away and the tired participants had left for home. The very first Old Time Fiddler’s Contest was over.

All that remained were the hundreds of paper fiddles, designed by John Reid, a local historian and farm equipment dealer.

Some contestants and fans had been attracted to the contest from far and wide across Ontario. Over the years, contestants from every province and territory of Canada, and several American states, have come to Shelburne, not to mention performers from overseas. The first ‘influx’ of the now familiar tourists in the beginning of August had begun, and with them came their stories and their music! The excitement in Shelburne was magic!

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