Jemima Isbister and Lena Cairns in historical dress, c. 1970. CDM 998.219.51.
Since the 1890s, the Comox Valley Fall Fair has showcased the gardens, livestock and crafts of local farmers and agriculturists, celebrating the bounty of the harvest. Over the years, women competed in homemaking skills such as knitting, canning, pickling, bread making, quilting, handwriting, and floral arranging. (Some years there was even a category for ‘Best Baby’!) They nurtured friendly rivalries as they exhibited their work, but one woman in particular made a name for herself with the remarkably high quality of her entries: Lena Cairns.
Lena Rebecca Farmer was born in London, England in October 1893. After her first husband died in Belgium during the Great War, she came to the Comox Valley in the summer of 1919 as a war bride to John Cairns. Finding herself in a new country, the young woman decided to get involved with her community by submitting items to the Fall Fair.
While rearing a family of five children, participating in various community groups, and raising money for the Red Cross, Mrs. Cairns continued to enter items into the Fall Fairs dominating in every subject she embraced. Over the years, she won more than 700 first prizes, 500 second prizes and was also the subject of much acclaim for rare or unusual entries that had no official classification. Using her glass-enclosed porch, Mrs. Cairns experimented with rare plants and flowers, bringing unusual blooms to the exhibition.
Cairns was such a formidable participant that, in the late 1960s, she was barred from entering any more items in the Comox Valley Fall Fair. She accepted this decision with grace and retired for a few years, then returned in 1974 at the age of 81. To no one’s surprise, she won many top honours.
Lena Cairns died in 1980 at the age of 86. Her talent, creativity, and dedication to the home arts has ensured that she remains an integral part of the history of the Comox Valley Fall Fair.