by Pierre Berton (Toronto Star, September 12, 1992)
This afternoon at 5, on the site of Charlie Shaw’s original hardwere store in Kleinburg. we will be choosing the new Binder Twine Queen for 1992-93.
I mention this because, while other queen contests are fading away under the disapproving frowns of feminists, the Binder Twine Queen contest has never been healthier or more popular.
It is the sort of contest that, I suspect, George Bush would love (and Preston Manning, too) for it appears superficially — but only superficially — to hark back to the good old days of Family Values when a woman’s place was on the farm.
After all, the contestants are required to perform a number of tasks far beyond the abilities of Miss Canada or Miss Universe. Can Miss Nude St. Catharines of 1991 saw through a log in half a minute? Can Miss Down Town Businessman’s Association drive four six-inch nails into a board in 60 seconds?
Ms Binder Twine can!
Our contest may have its roots in the past, but it looks steadily forward into the future — a future In which women will no longer be paraded before the public for their physical appearance.
At Kleinburg we’ve never given a hoot about physical beauty. Any woman from 18 to 80 can enter and no one Is asked to don a bathing suit.
Grandmothers have entered and won prizes. So have teenagers. One entrant a few years ago was eight months pregnant. She came second.
The one thing the contestants must have is personality — the wackier the better. It is this that separates the winners from the losers.
They have to be in costume. Most make their own and they arrive on stage with a variety of props that often include Jive animals — dogs, goats, chickens, etc. After all, this is a harvest fair. One contestant came dressed as a cowboy, riding a horse.
They wear wigs, funny hats, ethnic dress, work boots. They smoke pipes. They dress up as men. They shamelessly spoof the traditional beauty contest. Most have a flock of supporters down in front, rooting for them.
Of the dozen or so entrants who parade around the stage, shamelessly flirting with the judges, four are picked as finalists. Now they must compete in a series of tests, some objective (like nail driving) and others subjective (like hog calling).
The hardest test for the judges to call is pancake flipping. Some feel that height is the consideration here. Others vote for stamina. I, myself. favor style and éclat.
Once we had a sheep-shearing test on the stage — how much wool can you gather in 60 seconds?
Unfortunately, the sheep gobbled up all the pancakes from the previous contest. These had been prepared not for flavor or lightness, but for toughness and elasticity. The sheep became violently ill and that particular test has been cancelled.
The catch-a.chickcn contest has also been abandoned. The chickens were too fast and I believe one of them bit a judge. At least there was blood on the stage.
Every year we try to think up one new test, which we keep secret until the actual contest so that the entrants cannot practise for it. Last year, for instance, prospective Binder Twine Queens were asked to take the audience on a verbal stroll around the farm. On another occasion they were asked to demonstrate how to call their husband to dinner. But that was so similar to our standard hog calling test that we cancelled it.
The contest is the high point of an old-fashioned Street festival that goes back more than a century to Charlie Shaw’s day, when Kleinburg had three hotels and was an overnight stopping point on the road from Barrie to Toronto.
On the second weekend in September the village was crowded with hired men, sent to pick up rolls of the tough twine used to bind up sheaves of hay and wheat.
Charlie, who ran the local hardware store, decided to provide some entertainment — food, music, sarsaparilla, and other potables. When I hit Kleinburg in 1950, his store was still being operated by his son, Earl.
When Charlie died back in the ‘30s, Binder Night died with him and the town died, too. The automobile had killed it as a stop-over.
Some people ask why we restrict It to women Why can’t men enter? Well, on occasion they do, suitably disguised.
But they never, never win.