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Living history at a country festival

Camden’s European living history on show

An example of living history has been on display recently at the Camden Show, the annual celebration of the rural heritage of the Camden district.

The show is an immersive experience for participants and observers alike in the real smells, sounds and sights of a sample of the farm in rural Australia.

Camden Show collage 2019 IW
The 2019 Camden Show provided an immersive experience for participants and observers alike in a host of farming activities. The authentic sights, sounds and smells of the show ring and surrounds enlightened and entertained in a feast for the senses. (I Willis, 2019)

 

The show represents the authentic real life of country people. It is a performance bringing history to life by storytelling through a host of demonstrations, events and displays.

The show is historical representation of the past in the present  illustrating a host of aspects of rural heritage through experiential learning.

Living history reveals layers from the past

The show reveals itself in a multi-layered story of continuity and change on the edge of the Camden township. What was once a small isolated rural village at the Nepean River crossing and is now a thriving Sydney suburb on the city’s metropolitan fringe.

Competitive sections of the show have come and gone with changes in the farming economy. Livestock, produce, craft and cooking sections each tell a story of different aspect of rural life. What was once an integral part of the rural economy is now a craft activity and completely new sections have appeared over the decades.

Camden Show Sandra Dodds 2019 IW
Camden resident and artist Sandra D entered her creation in the Bush Cuppa Tray competition and won first prize. Her entry provided a feast for the sense with scones, cup of tea, a copy of the Bulletin magazine, a story of painting ‘en plein air’ in the 1890s, gum leaves. All this activity taking place on 21 December 1889 at Montrose in Victoria. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Where once rural artisans were part of the local economy their activities are now demonstrations of heritage and lost trades. Show patrons once used to arrive in a horse and cart today’s show-goers watch competitive driving of horse and sulkies in the show ring.

Camden Show Marily Willis 2019 IW
This excited first timer won second place for a group of zucchinis in the produce section of the 2019 Camden Show. Marilyn Judith W grew her entry on her plot at the Camden Community Garden where a number of other gardeners also entered their produce. Marilyn had an immersive experience at the show and volunteered her time at the community garden stall giving away seedlings to adults and children alike. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Sideshows and carnies continue show  traditions that have their origins in English village fairs and carnivals of the past and even a hint of the Roman Empire and their circuses.

The success of the show illustrates a yearning by those attending to experience and understand elements of the traditions of a rural festival in the face of urban growth and development.

History

The Camden Show is a rural festival that is part of the modern show movement that emerged from the Industrial Revolution.  The first series of agricultural shows in the early 19th century demonstrated modern British farming methods and technology.

The first agricultural shows in New South Wales were in the early 19th century and the first Camden Show in 1886. The 19th century agricultural show movement set out to  demonstrate the latest in British Empire know-how and innovation in farming.

The site of the show on the Nepean River floodplain is one of the first points of contact between European and Indigenous people and the cows that escaped from the Sydney settlement in 1788 former the Cowpasture Reserve in 1795. For living history it is material culture which grounds the audience in time and place.

Camden Show 2019 IW
All good farmers had a reliable truck to cart stock and hay to the market from the farm and to take trips into town. This one dates from the mid-20th century at Bringelly NSW on display at the Camden Show with a friendly passenger. (I Willis, 2019)
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Miss Showgirl, an enduring anachronism

The Miss Showgirl competition is in many ways an anachronism from the past. It has survived for over 45 years under the onslaught of feminism, post-modernism, globalization and urbanisation. A worthy feat indeed.

Camden Show Signage 2018
The Camden Show attracts over 40,000 people to the two day festival in the country town of Camden. (I Willis)

The competition is still popular and the local press are always strong supporters. The 2010 Miss Camden Showgirl competition  attracted seven young women.

So what has been the continuing appeal of the competition? Probably the most important criteria has been that it has been true to its aims of promoting rural interests. The competition has always been associated with the major rural festival, the country show, a celebration of rural life.

Show time, the show ball and Miss Showgirl are representative of notions around Camden’s rurality. People use the competition as a lens through which they can view the past, including the young women who enter it. In 2008 Showgirl Lauren Elkins ‘was keen’, she said, ‘to get into the thick of promoting the town and its rural heritage’. Camden people yearn for a past when the primary role of town was to service the surrounding farmers and their needs. Miss Showgirl is part of the invocation of rural nostalgia.

The winning showgirl projects the values and traditions of the local community according to Suzie Sherwood, a member of the organizing committee in 2004. She said that ‘the winner will have a strong connection with the community and be aware of rural issues’.

The organising committee seems to be successful at identifying entrants who have a sense of belonging to the local area. After winning the 2009 Camden showgirl competition, Adriana Mihajlovic said, ‘I will tell people that Camden is a beautiful rural country town with a wonderful community’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack said, ‘Camden is a lovely country town and I am proud that I can be involved in promoting it to other districts’. The showgirl competition connects the country town to the city. The entrant acts a publicity agent for the Camden Show, which is one of the largest regional shows in Australia.

The resilience of the showgirl competition can also be put down to its representation of the changes of rural life and rural women themselves. It is a mirror to the expectations and aspirations of young women. 2010 entrant Karina Ralstan said, ‘She sees it as an opportunity to raise issues concerning rural women’. 2004 Miss Camden Showgirl Danielle Haack felt the competition was an opportunity to raise rural issues and all 2010 entrants were concerned about the promoting the importance of agriculture.

Part of the success of the competition in Camden has been its ability to attract young women who want to make a living in the agricultural sector. University of Sydney veterinary science student Danielle Haack said she wanted to ‘improve the quality of cattle’ and her studies will help her in animal genealogy and herd health. 2010 entrant Brooke Mulholland is an owner/manager of a Suffolk sheep stud.

The showgirl competition is a relic of a time when gender expectations stated that rural women were confined by home and family. Today’s young women want a career and travel. Something that the Miss Showgirl competitions have supplied. In 2004 the grand prize at the Royal Easter Show was a world trip for two, and Camden’s representative Danielle Haack certainly felt that, ‘a world trip would be a lovely end-of-year treat for me once I finish my degree’.

The competition has given entrants the opportunity to fully experience showtime in Sydney. The annual city visit can be a big deal for those who experience it. 2002 Miss Showgirl Margie Roser stated that staying is Sydney ‘was one of the best times of her life’. She said that her time is Sydney was ‘full of social engagements, media coverage and cocktail parties’. At a local level the party element is not ignored and the annual Camden show ball is an occasion to ‘frock up’. 2004 Camden Miss Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘The ball in itself was great fun’.

Over the years showgirls have found that the competition has been good for making friends, personal development and new experiences. 2003 Camden Showgirl Sally Watson said, ‘the experience was rewarding. It is a wonderful chance to network and meet many other like-minded young women’.

Yet showgirl competitions have not been without their critics. The competition has survived in New South Wales and Queensland while not in Victoria. Some have seen it as daggy, while some have seen it as the commodification of women. The entrants defend the competition. Danielle Haack maintained that the contest ‘was anything but a beauty pageant. Some of my friends have asked me how the swimsuit category was going, but its nothing like that’.

The competition and the strong field of entrants  is a testament to the ongoing popularity of the Camden Show and its representation of Camden’s rurality.

Read more on Camden rurality