“The show must go on… ” Deane Perry, standing alongside a 1927 Fordson Model N tractor built in Cork, Ireland, laughed at the notion the vaudeville drama queen who bequeathed that treasured saying must have surely attended the annual Southern Agricultural Society Show at Port Elliot.
It was only in the late 1980s that Deane, now 65, would visit the local bank manager on the Friday morning before our big event – we have endeared it as the Port Elliot Show – and borrowed money to pay for the prizes for the competitions. It was hard enough telling ‘Mrs Brown’ her sultana cake came a distant second let alone informing a jubilant ‘Mrs Chatsworth’ her jam roll had only earned kind words.
First thing the following Monday morning Deane, a past president of the society for nearly 15 years over three stints, would return and pay back the money, and if the crowds were bigger than average he would leave something extra in the bank. Next year, same story, and the show would go on.
It is merely one example of how our show has survived against all odds, and as we prepare for the 136th Port Elliot Show on October 12-13 Deane will again stand in the centre of where they once had grand parades featuring horses and stock and shed a tear; literally.
“This show gets to me emotionally every time,” he said. It is easy to see why. As the Southern Agricultural Society’s historian he relayed how the first show was held at Middleton, behind the Mindacowie Guest House, and the following year went to Port Victor, River Port of Goolwa, and back to Middleton.
“They took it in turns until 1869 when they realised there was always town warfare about who was going to host the show,” Deane said. “When it was at Victor the Goolwa people didn’t help and it was the same when it was at Goolwa. I guess nothing has changed (he laughs).”
It led to purchasing four acres at Port Elliot, and keeping the show there. Deane is convinced had the first committee members not had this foresight the show would have ended there and then.
The greatest challenge, he believes, came in 1959 when a bushfire swept through the back of Port Elliot and almost completely burnt out the showgrounds. “Only two buildings were left,” Deane recalled. “A few years earlier we had built a new secretary’s office and a pavilion, plus new drop-down toilets… all gone.
“A lot of people thought…; this is not worth the effort rebuilding and keeping the show going, but there was a lot of character around this place. Bernard ‘Bun’ Basham and Allan Higgins, who were farmers, put a proposal to the Society to build a new pavilion and had it ready for the 1959 show.
“Bun Basham went up in his 1942 Ford Blitz semi-trailer – I went with him – and picked up all these 25ft long flat panels, welded them and they became the new sheep yards built by Allan and Bun. If it weren’t for the passion and faith of these men, and other people Les Hann, the show would have died then.”
The show also barely survived the huge insurance hikes of the early 90s – from $200 to $2000 – not to mention the controversy when Deane’s father, decided not to award a prize for the best veggies because, being a champion in his own backyard he didn’t think any were good enough to be bestowed such honour.
Today the Port Elliot Show continues to thrive, and the Society’s committee – all volunteers of course, led by its president Steve Rogers and secretary Gayle Garrett – has done a marvellous job erecting a new pavilion at the northern end of the oval to house a museum featuring, among many things, old farm machinery and wares. The nostalgia runs deep, and Deane loves it.
Deane has lived and breathed every show since 1952 when he was four years old, with the family’s yard backing on to the original showgrounds. Still today, you can see the green roof. “It was great,” he recalled. “We could jump the fence and get in for free.
“This was our play area. I deeply respect our Aboriginal people who have feeling for their lands and I guess I have a special feeling for this bit of ground too. It’s sacred to me. I had a great time; I grew up here and I also took all of the memories of the old Guy Fawkes nights on November 5 from here.
“As a real little tacker, the thing from the show that is most vivid for me is not the show itself, but every Sunday morning after when kids from everywhere got over here at first light and looked for coins and anything else they could find. It was the greatest treasure hunt you could ever see.
“There were only a few sideshows in my early days, like the traditional hurdy-gurdy, and the old clowns where you put a ping pong ball in the mouth. Those clowns are still here.
“Our show also attracted a lot of trade… the Barton Brothers would bring their farm machinery over, Toop Motors would come, and so would the Chrysler dealer, Brandwood Motors – Des and Kingsley Brandwood.
“The real excitement for me was seeing the show being set up the day before. First thing Saturday we’d have new cars that we had never seen before parading down the street and entering the showgrounds.
“It was just the excitement of the kids’ rides and everyone being here. As kids in Port Elliot, we went to Adelaide Christmas day and at Easter to see our grandparents, and that was the only time we went out of the district. We rarely went to Victor Harbor to do our shopping.
“The Port Elliot Show was the one and only time for the year that you’d get something exciting happening in the town, and where you could have a joy ride.
“We used to save up our money. You couldn’t go to your parents and say, dad I want a pound to go the show. He might have said here’s a shilling to get into the show, and there were six kids in the family. The rest you would have to earn, doing things like picking up pine cones for the winter. We’d get two shillings for a wheatbag of pine cones for the winter. We’d hate doing it, but it bought us a toffee apple and gave us a ride on the hurdy-gurdy.
“We used to have show bags – they were really sample bags full of donated stuff. We got little jars of pickles and jams.
“We thought they were big crowds, but then there were 100 kids at Port Elliot Primary in those days and the morning assembly was the biggest mob of people you saw up until show day.
“Horses have always been involved with the show as long as I can remember. It was a huge attraction in the late 50s when they started at eight o’clock in the morning and finished in darkness.
“Another special thing about any show is being able to enter something, a piece of woodwork or a cake, and have the chance to feel so wonderful if you won a prize. The show prizes mean a lot to people. That’s what this is; something to show.
“I guess one of my fondest memories was as a group of kids in my class put up displays of our school work. To come and see what we had done at school, and to see people look at it, brought a lot of pride to us kids. Of course, we never told anyone else what it meant to us, but we all knew.
“The school displays seem to be coming back to the shows now; I hope so. We have got a lot of support from the Port Elliot Primary School since it has been located by the showgrounds. There is a strong pride aspect within the school these days; they understand the show more. For these children it is feeling the history; it’s always been more than a show; it’s been about the way we were and are today.”
Deane said a lot of things had changed over the years, and features of the show had disappeared, like the grand parades because of the insurance risks.
However, according to Deane, the meeting of old friends, the laughs, and the amazing town pride that you can feel among the crowd is what really makes the Port Elliot Show something really special; not Mrs Brown’s sultana cakes, a fast ride or a toffee apple.
When asked what was the most heartening moment he had experienced in the 61 shows he had attended or worked on, his eyes became teary again. “When my granddaughter Kimberly – she’s 14 – helped out at the last show,” he said. “It tells me the young ones do care. The show will go on then, won’t it?”