A Stompin’ Good Time: The Niagara Grape & Wine Festival

I don’t know about you, but this weather stirs my nostalgia for fall festivals. It’s the kind of weather that gets us excited for corn mazes, pumpkin patches, fall craft markets, apple cider, and everything synonymous with harvest celebrations. Traditionally known as the Fruit Belt, Niagara shares a rich agricultural history and has enjoyed several generations of harvest festivals across the region. In St. Catharines, one of the most well know is the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival, which, of course, celebrates the fall grape harvest and the delicious nectar made from the fruit.

A lucky spectator is thrown a bunch of grapes during the first Niagara Grape Festival parade in 1952. STCM S1952.61.1.39

Putting Niagara’s Wine’s “on the Map”

The festival first kicked-off in 1952. It was an idea conceived by George Hostetter, a past researcher for Bright’s Wines who was inspired to bring wider awareness to Niagara’s successful grape and wine industry. Alongside agricultural journalist Bevis C. Walters, Hostetter wrote a proposal to what is now the Grape Growers of Ontario and eventually gained endorsement by July 1952. They had just two months to plan the big event.

Set for the end of September, the first festival, simply named the Niagara Grape Festival, was planned by a board of governors and advisors made up of all the mayors and reeves of the local towns and townships in Niagara. Mr. A.C. John Franklin was mayor of St. Catharines at the time. There was also a committee of 53 individuals and ten sub-committees that helped plan the event, which included a ladies’ committee.

In 1954 the event was moved to Niagara Falls but it was later moved back to St. Catharines. The festival name has changed multiple times over the years, but today, we again know it as the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival.

The Pied Piper leads children in the costumed Pied Piper Parade, 1986. The parade was organized by Brock University students. STCM S1986.9.20.28

Whatever you call it, the festival quickly grew from 1952 into a multi-day celebration with upwards of 100 events. In the September 1976 edition of the community magazine, Alive and Well in St. Catharines, a two-page spread features many of the festival highlights from that year, which was its 25th silver anniversary as well as the City’s centennial anniversary. Festivities included the Pied Piper costumed children’s parade, the crowning of the Festival Queen at the Queen’s Coronation Ball, the Mayor’s Grape Stomping Championship, an arts market and Concert in the Park at Montebello Park, food and wine tastings, winery tours, speciality lunches and dinners with celebrity speakers, fashion shows, and so much more. The Niagara Grape and Wine Festival certainly brought a vitality and vibrant spirit to St. Catharines, and this has carried forward to today.

Grape King Robes, c. late 1980s.
STCM 1998.353.1

In its early years, the festival would kick-off with the coronation of the Grape King. This reputable title was given to the grape grower with the “finest vineyards in Canada.” While the crowning would take place on his own vineyard, the vintner would be officially honoured at the King’s Reception in the evening. The Grape King’s Robes, dated to the 1960s and made of heavy white and purple velvety material, are in the Museum Collection.

The crowing of grape-grower Lavelle Staff, during the 1967 Grape King coronation. STCM S1967.9.40

Montebello Park has long been the central hub for Grape and Wine. Again, looking to the 1976 festival programme, the park hosted an arts and crafts market for local artisans across the region, the Mayor’s Grape Stomping contest, and was also the pick-up/drop-off point for guided tours to area wineries and vineyards. Concert in the Park made a home at Montebello Park as early as the 1960s, opening the stage to a diverse range of cultural groups from the community to perform traditional music, dance, and other lively customs as well as other entertainment.

High Kickers: dance performers take the stage at Concert in the Park, 1983. S1983.9.25.9

The Most Visible Symbol of Citizenship in the City”

The first Mr. Grape mascot costume, dated 1976, is in the Museum Collection. It was worn by various volunteers until it was retired. STCM 2001.174.1

The Grande Parade has long been the high point of the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival. The inaugural parade in 1952 included 27 floats, 14 bands and lasted 40 minutes. Over time, the Grande Parade grew to be one of the largest street parades in Canada, gaining international recognition, and counting over 500,000 visitors flooding St. Catharines’ downtown core. Beginning in the late morning on the last Saturday of the festival, the Grande Parade would start at the Lake St. Armoury and, at its peak, last almost two hours. One recollection describes the parade as “perhaps the most visible symbol of citizenship in the city. This feeling transcends to thousands of visitors.” With brightly decorated floats, immaculate marching bands, cultural performers dancing and playing music from all over the world, baton twirlers, and playful entertainment, the parade has long been enjoyed as a treat for the eyes and ears. Parade-goers of days-past often remember people on floats tossing bunches of grapes to the crowds as they passed by. A favourite of the parade was also sightings of Mr. Grape, the festival mascot, who would greet spectators as he marched along.

A Grape Queen contestant smiles from a convertible during the 1955 Grape and Wine Parade. The Russel House Hotel is featured behind the crowds of spectators, at the corner of St. Paul St. and James St. STCM S1955.46.10.37

Spirit of Community

Local celebrations like the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival are knit together with the spirit of the community. Such public displays are only as much as the meaning and feeling that people to them – feelings of community pride, identity, and belonging can only be cultivated by the people who share in the festivities. I hope that reading this brief history of the festival can bring back a few memories and recollections, and even more, I hope you can stir up a certain feeling or sense connected to Grape and Wine – that is the essence of the community spirit fostered at such public celebrations. These are the things that are the hardest to capture in the history books.

At the time of publishing this blog post, the 2020 Niagara Grape and Wine Festival is just wrapping up. As with every facet of our lives, this year saw significant change in the celebration – from streaming the Concert in the Park online for audiences at home, to reimagining the Grande Parade as a Porch Parade, and instead encouraging Niagara residents and businesses to decorate their front yards and storefronts as part of the festivities. Still, even through these different avenues, Grape and Wine has been able to evoke the spirit of the community as in years past.

Help us make this spirit feel stronger. We encourage you to share your stories and memories of the Niagara Grape and Wine Festival in the comments as we hold on just a little longer to what this event means to our community.

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

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