It was the year that Ottawa was declared Canada’s capital, the first photo was taken of a solar eclipse and one of the most severe economic crises in the United States started, but in the Illawarra, a decision in 1857 by Dapto farmers to start an agricultural show unknowingly marked an important milestone in local history and launched one of the region’s most iconic events.
Just months after the town’s Agricultural and Horticultural Society was formed, the first ever Dapto Show came to life on 28 January 1857 at the Brownsville Flour Mill, which was owned by society secretary John Brown, from Brownsville.
An article in the Australian Town and Country Journal to mark the show’s jubilee event in 1907 revisited the beginnings of the event.
It said fine weather prevailed for the opening show after heavy rain had washed out the society’s first planned event, a ploughing match on the Newton Estate, just one week prior.
“The event had given rise to a great deal of interest on the part of the residents for miles around, and the farmers and their wives laboured with exemplary zeal to prepare exhibits so as to provide a display that would favourably compare with the shows in the rival neighbouring centres of Wollongong and Kiama,” the article said.
“Mr. Brown described the show as a great success. There was a good attendance, and the display of exhibits was of a meritorious character. The sale yards at the rear of the Dapto Hotel, previously referred to, were used for showing the horses and cattle and other livestock exhibits, whilst grain, butter, and other farm produce were displayed on the ground floor of the mill, across the road, and fruit and flowers on the first floor and balcony of the same building.”
There were 65 exhibitors with 355 total entries for that first show, a number that would continue to rise in subsequent years.
“Dairy cattle formed the leading feature of the show, surpassing all other sections in quality and numbers. Butter also afforded a creditable display, so that the dairying industry was well represented around Dapto even then. In grains, which is a weak point of the present-day South Coast shows, wheat, malting barley, Cape barley, oats, maize, and rye grass were the principal exhibits, and they made a nice display.”
The exhibits were typical of the day, but a far cry from those on view in today’s shows. Prizes were awarded for best draught horse, bag of wheat, best keg of salt butter and best potatoes.
The Journal article quoted Mrs Warrington, who was one of “four old ladies, who were present at the first show, still living at Dapto” about her memories of that day.
“Lots of people travelled to it in bullock drays, and a large number of ladies arrived on horseback. Some of the ladies had their walking dresses strapped on to their saddles, whilst others went about all day in their riding skirts.
“I remember quite distinctly that the excitement was intense when the names of the prize-winners were about to be announced by Mr Brown in the afternoon. There were no ribbons or cards for the prize exhibits in those days, and we had to wait until all the judging was done before we knew who had been successful.”
A show banquet was held that evening at Brown’s Hotel: “It was to have taken place at 4 o’clock, but owing to the unexpected arrival of more guests than had been anticipated and arranged for, it was about 6 o’clock when the proceedings commenced”.
With no fewer than 16 toasts to the success of the show, it was “wee sma’ hours of the morning before the company dispersed”.
For the next 11 years, the show took place either at the flour mill or the Literary Hall, until the society leased “an ordinary paddock on the northern side of Mullet Creek Bridge” and erected a pavilion and cattle yards.
According to the Australian Town and Country Journal article the show was held on this site for 10 years until the society was gifted 10 acres (4 hectares) of land by Mr P. H. Osborne.
“This is located a little over a mile from the old flour mill, where the first show was held, and is in the centre of the town of Dapto. Apart from being rather small, the site is well suited for show purposes, and has been greatly improved by the planting of ornamental trees, the erection of a galvanised iron pavilion and sheds, and the construction of a ring, and scores of substantial stalls and yards for stock. Altogether, the improvements upon it have cost something like £800.”
Now in its 166th year, the community event is one of the longest-running shows in the state, but it looks a little different to how it all started last century.
Dapto Show this weekend is still a celebration of the region’s agricultural roots but with a more modern touch and activities designed for the whole family.
Entertainment includes a motorbike stunt show, dog tricks show, lawn mower racing, wood chop competition and farmyard activities like sheep shearing, cow milking and whip cracking.
The poultry competition will bring a huge display of chooks and ducks, plus Hephner the Alpaca and Charlie the Brahman bull will also make an appearance.
There’s even the addition of a Junior Cowboy and Junior Cowgirl competition for kids from three to seven years old.
And the popularity has climbed so high for horse events like show jumping and hacking that they will be held over two days the following weekend, creating an extra chance for the community to get involved in the show that has shaped the local agricultural scene.
Dapto Show is on Saturday 23 September, 10 am to 4 pm, at The Groundz Precinct, also known as Dapto Showground. For more information visit the Dapto Show website.