For the first time in four decades, Graeme Johnstone will not be attending the fair. Graeme died April 27 at his home with his son Mike at his side.
For 40 years Graeme presided over every aspect of the annual Bulkley Valley Exhibition, officially or not, sleeves rolled up and ready to work. More often than not in later years, with his signature beard and dark glasses, he had a clipboard and pen in hand judging something in the livestock area or generally keeping track of the goings on. There wasn’t much he didn’t notice, and he didn’t like weak links.
When Graeme first came to the Bulkley Valley in 1972 as the District Agriculturist with the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, one of his assigned jobs was ministry representative on the board of the Bulkley Valley Exhibition. In characteristic fashion he dove in, head first.
One of the first things he was involved with was the relocation of the fairgrounds. In 1972 the fair was being held in town on the civic centre grounds and it had outgrown the site. By 1975 the new grounds beside the river were ready, thanks in part to Graeme’s efforts both behind the scenes and literally in the trenches with shovel, chainsaw or hammer in hand.
It was not uncommon in those early days to see Graeme along with other dedicated volunteers digging, sawing or hammering away at something at the fairgrounds. Graeme and Claude Dohler built the first wooden cattle rings, the bleachers, and the stage for the feature entertainment. They dug the hole for the logger sports some years later and a myriad of other jobs that needed doing. No task was too small and no job too menial.
Graeme knew every inch of the grounds from top to bottom and then some. He made sure all the toilets worked and one of his annual jobs was to drain the system in the fall so that the pipes didn’t freeze in winter. There are 14 water valves on the grounds and he knew every one of them.
Graeme designed the office for the board and was instrumental in getting the Davidson Hall built to accommodate the growing number of exhibits and visitors. He was president from 1989 to 1997 and the impetus behind the heavy horse pull, the monster trucks and other entertainment. He always contended that people needed a feature to draw them in because carrots and cabbages weren’t enough.
4-H was a special love of Graeme’s. He judged livestock, demonstrations, and speeches. He always took part in their Spring Show of livestock at the grounds in May, a preparation for the real thing to come at the fair in August. He said the program was designed to teach children valuable life skills and he devoted many hours to making sure it did.
In the 1980’s, Graeme and his wife Lisbeth decided the fair should have a float and went to work building one. After a bit of trial and error they came up with a rig for their truck and spent their spare time one winter making yellow and gold roses for the float. For 10 years they attended parades in towns from Burns Lake to the Queen Charlotte Islands bearing greetings from the town of Smithers and inviting people to the fall fair.
Lisbeth Johnstone at some point decided that if she was ever going to see her husband she’d have to join him and she joined the board in the late ‘70s. Her work and dedication were acknowledged some years later when the board decided to name the Quonset hut on the grounds Lisbeth Johnstone Hall in her honour. She was surprised and elated. Graeme said Lisbeth was a talented organizer and her skills were put to good use at the fair. Lisbeth died in August of 2002.
Graeme turned 75 in 2002 and the Fair Board decided to do something concrete to show appreciation for his ongoing leadership and commitment. Anyone who visits the fair and walks the grounds will notice the sign ‘Graeme’s Way’ at the entrance to the road that runs through the livestock area. He was delighted. There was no question of its meaning or its affection. Not far away is another sign, Graeme’s Shed, full of the tools and ‘stuff’ needed to keep the place looking good.
Graeme has left a legacy of dedication, hard work and excellence for those who come after. Although he won’t be a physical presence at the fair, everything from the roof tops to the sawdust speak of him. He is sorely missed.