The man behind Penticton's first Peach Festival and his travelling circus

The man behind Peach Fest

This is part two in the history of the Peach Festival Series. Read part one here.

“This is the peach centre of the world. We should call it Peach Festival.”

Those were the words of Pentictonite Henry Meyerhoff, who helped shape much of Penticton's festival history and helped start the city's Peach Festival back in 1948.

Brian Wilson, archivist and executive director of the Okanagan Archive Trust Society, created a biographical article about Meyerhoff and his journey across Canada.

"The first Peach Festival, it wasn't even going to be called the Peach Festival and it was kind of tied to a guy that started the circus here," Wilson said.

Meyerhoff’s roots were in the German-American state of Wisconsin. His father had started by running a small travelling show he called “Herman Meyerhoff’s Dramatic and Variety Show.”

According to Wilson, the show had first settled on Eldridge Street, near the Bowery of New York City.

But when Meyerhoff's father died suddenly in 1899, the 15-year-old was granted sole ownership of the circus. With help from the workers, he pulled it all together to keep running even while being near bankruptcy.

"Throughout the three decades, the show travelled to all the large and mid-size cities on the Eastern seaboard and even to Ottawa. Strangely, this is where Henry first heard of “Penticton”. In 1916, while on a Canadian tour, he bought some Penticton District Municipal Bonds. Where they came from was not to enter Henry’s mind until 1933," Wilson wrote.

"Soon after it was decided to remain in Ottawa and make it the headquarters to tour Canadian cities. They stayed in Eastern Canada and toured from Sydney to Windsor for over 20 years. In those years they were a central feature of the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto."

In the 1930s, the show faced hard times during the depression and Meyerhoff decided to take his show and previously purchased Penticton bonds over to the city, settling in a farmer’s field south of town.

But his licence to set up the show on the site was refused by the city.

"Many good citizens wanted nothing to do with a travelling gypsy show in their town," Wilson wrote.

After going to local businesses to ask for credit, Meyerhoff found all of them were actually willing to help him out and he was able to go back to city hall and get a green light from council to obtain a licence.

Wilson said that Meyerhoff's success really came in the 40s, once he had found the "right acts, the right animals
and the right concessions" for his travelling circus. He purchased a 10-acre plot of land on the corner of Calgary Avenue and Main Street where he built a home and large barn to house his animals.

In April every year, the carnival and circus would be set up for the locals for two or three weeks before being loaded on railcars and heading for Victoria or Edmonton.

Once the travelling season ended, he would return to Penticton and set the carnival back up for a stint in October before packing it away for the winter.

"It's really strange that we used to have a wintering ground for a worldwide circus and it was right where Safeway is today, right in that whole section there. He owned all that," Wilson said.

"It was common to go down to that area and see elephants, camels and zebras. And he had a great big barn that had lions and tigers in it."

During that time, Meyerhoff was asked to join a planning committee for the organization of the beginnings of an annual festival for Penticton. The committee wanted to call this festival “Mardi gras” but Meyerhoff argued for Peach Festival.

According to the history posted to the Peach Fest website, representatives of four local service clubs (including Lodge 49 – Knights of Pythias, Penticton Rotary Club, Gyros, and Kiwanis) met with Reeve Robert Lyon to discuss the idea of a festival.

Penticton had wanted a “day” to call its own for years, with many attempts to achieve this.

That came to fruition in 1948.

"There was a parade and kiddie races and there was a little midway that was set up, of course by Meyerhoff and his little circus group. He had a separate contractor that ran all the Midway stuff that always went in there. They had music in Gyro park, but it's funny, they didn't have the bandstand that they have now. That was done from profits from the circus as well," Wilson said.

"He was this guy in the background that was always forking out money to the community."

That first annual Peach Festival earned the community "priceless publicity," according to the Peach Fest website. From there, it would grow to include a grand parade of bands, professional wrestling, a boxing exhibition featuring local and valley amateur boxers, and a fireworks display.

In 1971, Peach Fest included an airshow featuring Tutor jet trainers flying in formation for the very first time. The team of three jets, that flew their very first show that year, is known as the Snowbirds.

The Sandcastle Competition made its debut at Peachfest in 1983.

In 1991, events expanded to include the Penticton Invitational Lawn Bowling tournament, the Peach Classic Triathlon, the ninth annual Jaycees Raft Parade bungy jump demonstration and stunts, the Breakaway Junior Triathlon, Beach Olympics and music at the Gyro Park Bandshell.

Sponsors started to grow their donations throughout the 2010s, allowing the festival to bring in bigger name acts.

A study released by the City of Penticton revealed that the festival creates a $3.6 million economic impact locally.

Today, thousands of locals and visitors come out for the city's biggest free festival.

Meyerhoff would end up selling his property for the Penticton Plaza shopping centre in 1958 but kept the house lot separate. He lived in his house at the corner of Calgary Avenue until his death in 1962.

More information on Peach Festival events can be found here.

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