As historian Keith Walden has chronicled:
Conventions in Toronto during fair time
By 1890, a number of organizations had fallen into the habit of arranging conventions in the city while the fair was in progress. In 1894, a formal link was established when some societies moved onto the actual fairgrounds, filling a sizable portion of lawn south of the Main Building with gaily coloured hospitality tents.
A Place to Pass a Few Pleasant Moments in a Fraternal Way
Patrons of Industry, Knights of Pythias, Maccabees, members of the Home Circle, and a variety of Foresters, among others, were invited to Society Row to meet executives of their orders and pass a few pleasant moments in a fraternal way.
The innovation was very successful. The Canadian Order of Home Circles, for one, reported an average of five hundred visitors daily. Accordingly, the row was reconstituted the next year on a grander scale. Fifteen organizations erected tents covered with flags, bunting and streamers in a semi-circle near the lake, and the Mail and Empire described it as one of the most popular resorts on the grounds.
The orders were clearly pleased with the response and tried to negotiate for permanent amenities including elaborate gardens, a fountain, lighting, conveniences and signs. The Association was unable to oblige. Nonetheless, its transformation from a feature of the fair to a fixture, as the Star put it, was symbolized in 1903 by the appearance of a “log cabin” erected by the Woodsman of the World.
A Rooftree for Wanderers from Outside Parts
Society Row, as the Star reporter put it, was “a sort of rooftree for wanderers from outside points….a place where they can be sure of a welcome and an easy chair, a refuge from the surging eager crowds” but there was more to it than gracious hospitality and public spiritedness.
The orders were businesses as much as fraternal societies. Many, like the Independent Foresters, operated large and successful mutual benefits and insurance schemes. According to Mary Ann Clawson, by the late 19th Century, they had become fully entrepreneurial organizations, operated to maximize growth and revenue. They prospered only if membership levels remained healthy.
Appearing at the fair was a useful way of solidifying existing membership and attracting newcomers, thus ensuring a steady flow of monthly premiums.