Stories from our land – Celebrating Canada’s 150

Here she comes, Miss Wagg’s Creamery 1967

EDITOR’S NOTE: In conjunction with Canada’s Sesquicentennial in 2017, members of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle are crafting stories and poems to pay tribute to our country on this pivotal milestone birthday.

by Margo Little
Beauty pageants have always been popular on Manitoulin especially at the Providence Bay Fair and Haweater Weekend so in this sesquicentennial year, I thought it might be amusing to revisit a Miss Manitoulin contest that took place 50 years ago. A group of high school and college girls had a chance to strut their stuff on the Island while Expo 67 was taking place in Montreal.

When I was a university student, I would come home to work at a lodge or store during July and August. In 1967 I had a summer job at Wagg’s store in Mindemoya (the current location of Jake’s.) Of course, there was a bit of that famous Manitoulin nepotism going on; my mother’s sister, Gloria Corbierre and brother-in-law, Doug Hutchinson were already employed there. That significant summer was characterized by an air of excitement everywhere; it was Centennial year and every community was eager to do something memorable to mark 100 years since Confederation. What better way to celebrate than to stage a traditional beauty contest featuring young women sponsored by merchants from across the Island?

Imagine my surprise when I was approached to represent Wagg’s in the competition. As Miss Wagg’s Creamery, I would wear a cream-coloured sash designed to remind everyone of the wholesome, pure butter that made the company famous. In those days butter was sacred to those of us raised on Island dairy farms. We grew up agreeing with the famous chef Julia Child that “with enough butter, anything is good.”

As mentioned, my uncle Hutch, as he was known, worked at the store and he welcomed the news of my pageant participation with customary good humour. Part of the daily routine at the store was tolerating the barrage of teasing and rowdy ribbing that went along with the job. The upcoming beauty competition gave Hutch some extra ammunition for his jokes at my expense.

Every morning soon after my arrival, he would tell me how much the judges valued physical fitness and he would urge me to do exercises to boost my stamina. He nicknamed me Frigid Bridgid and repeated the same mantra every morning: “We must, we must, we must improve our bust.” The naughty banter would spark laughter throughout the store with men and women alike throwing their shoulders back, thrusting their chests out and chanting in unison.

In retrospect, there was nothing unusual about any of that activity. The idea of lining women up and judging them on their physical attributes can be traced back to antiquity. Anyone who has studied Greek mythology will be aware that gods and goddesses fought to see who would be “the fairest of them all.” In Britain, for instance, May Day celebrations involved the selection of queens. In the US circus owners often attracted audiences with contests to judge women’s faces and figures; people who ran beach resorts frequently staged swimsuit contests as entertainment. The Miss America contest has been very popular since 1921.

In Ontario, International Plowing Matches would choose a Queen of the Furrow as part of the festivities. In parts of Canada, the highlight of fall fairs would be the crowning of the Harvest King and Queen. And the Miss Canada competition was very much a staple of television viewing right up until its decline in the 1980s.

For all their detractors, it can’t be denied that pageants provided a lot of fun for the participants and for the onlookers. Uncle Hutch was a relentless cheerleader in the weeks leading up to the Island-wide competition. I was to wear a dress that would camouflage my flaws, to develop a graceful, feminine walk, and to plaster on a beautiful pageant smile. We decided against any artificial enhancements since wearing “falsies” was grounds for disqualification.

Well, the big night came. People had driven into Mindemoya from every direction to watch young ladies flaunt their winning traits. Call it stage fright; call it a sudden feminist epiphany. I don’t know what spurred me to forget all Hutch’s coaching and race across that stage like a mad cow late for milking time. All I knew was that no one was going to set eyes upon me long enough to judge me or rank me on any arbitrary scale of beauty. However, there was no denying my physical fitness; I certainly broke some kind of Olympic sprint record when my blue gown flashed by the spectators. Yes, I made my exit as smooth as Wagg’s creamery butter….