Banner photo is of the Crystal Palace in 1905. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
One of the best parts of all my childhood summers was a trip or two to the Canadian National Exhibition. Of course, no one ever called it that – it was always the C.N.E. or The Ex. If you can imagine such a thing, we used to get a free entrance ticket with our report cards in June. I remember walking home after the last day of school and tearing open my report card looking for it. Finding out my grades took a definite backseat to making sure that ticket was in there.
Because it came at the end of August, the only downside of wanting The Ex to hurry up and open was that it also heralded the start of the new school year –and you really didn’t want that to come any quicker. Well, at least I didn’t. But otherwise it was the best possible thing that could happen for a kid.
The Ex (I’m just going to call it that for simplicity’s sake) began in 1879, but it has roots in a much older fair – the Provincial Agricultural Fair which kicked off in Toronto in 1846. This earlier event was also held annually, but rotated from town to town to be sure that as many Ontarians as possible were able to enjoy looking at cattle and farm implements. I sound a bit smirky there, I know – but seriously that’s what it was all about. And the people loved it, as we can see from this account of the Niagara Fair of 1850:
As you can imagine, each town was anxious to have their fair be the best and Toronto was no different. For its third go-round as host, in 1858, the city decided to spring for a venue that would really put their fair on the map:
And here we have some florid ceremony-speak about the laying of the cornerstone:
If you’re like me and always wonder what’s been put in a cornerstone’s time capsule, you might appreciate this:
But enough of all the pomp, let’s have a look at the Crystal Palace itself:
Unfortunately, though, it didn’t weather well and started to fall apart:
Whatever repairs were made to the Crystal Palace – and they sound extensive – it was all for naught. Just eight years later, the grand exhibition building was torn down (must’ve been ouch-y with all that glass) and a new, improved exhibition building was raised.
When in 1878, the Provincial Agricultural Fair came to a close, Toronto decided to take up the reins. In 1879 the city launched the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, with its new Crystal Palace as the centerpiece.
Despite the “industrial” handle, it was in fact still quite pig and cow heavy. Now, I may be misjudging my audience, but I don’t think anyone’s much interested in reading lengthy documents on the breeds featured – so we’ll give that a skip, if you don’t mind. (If you ARE keen on reading about livestock, drop me a line and I will send you enough reams on cow breeds to make your head spin.)
Instead, I think it’d be fun to see what was on offer if you weren’t interested in livestock and advances made in threshing. So if you’ll give me a moment, I’ll see if I can dig up a program or two …
Ah, here’s one that looks promising:
Might as well have a look at the back cover while we’re at it:
A-ha! A map of where you could find the various attractions:
It probably goes without saying (but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t) that like many fairs, a key element was the ability to win prizes for your heifer or handiwork:
And what’s a fair without fireworks?
A big feature of every Ex today is what preposterous food creation you can get the public to purchase and actually consume. I don’t know that this was the case with the Industrial Exhibition, but food was certainly on offer and a favoured restaurant was promoted heavily:
Oh look at this, an evening program – now we’re talking. No doubt there was some fine entertainment on offer:
But that’s not all …
Now, while I’m sure that at least some of those acts were great fun for the kids, the exhibition actually had something very special planned for them:
I imagine that if I had been a child of the time, it would actually have been pretty exciting. (I’m trying really hard here to see it.) But frankly, it makes me all the more sentimental about The Ex I grew up with. And specifically, its rides.
Like numerous other kids, the midway’s siren call was irresistible to me and I’d fall all over myself trying to figure out how many tickets I could buy and which rides I should use them on. At the time, the Flyer – a large wooden roller coaster built in 1953 – was a big draw. Which is kind of remarkable given the fact that, well, it was wooden. And built in 1953.
Also, high up on the list was the Polar Express. If you’re from Toronto, you’re already nodding. Because it is impossible to talk about The Ex and not mention it.
The Polar Express, if you’re not familiar with it, was a looping track on which cars were whipped around at incredible speeds. Tradition dictated that the ride blare heavy metal and that a disreputable looking character at the controls scream “Wanna go faster?!” Of course everyone would scream that they did. Or at least, I think they did – they could’ve just been screaming. Anyhow, no one ever wanted to sit on the inside of a car because that was where the weight of everyone riding with you was thrown when it got going. Also, there was usually a protruding bolt of some sort that would burrow into your thigh and give you a neat bruise. The only thing remotely “polar” about the whole thing was the backdrop, which was painted with buxom, fur-bikini clad women in an arctic landscape.
Now, as great as the Flyer and Polar Express were, if I only had tickets for one ride, there was no doubt which I’d choose – The Zipper. Thinking back on it now, my knees go weak and I have to breathe into a paper bag. But god knows, my sister and I could not get enough of it as kids. I’ll spare you my attempt to describe it and instead refer you to its Wikipedia page (because of course there’s one). But I will tell you, I remember the day that something clicked (not literally, thank god) and we were done with it.
There we were, suspended in the air high above The Ex, snug in our little metal coffin, when it began spinning backwards. Now this was normal and part of the brilliant terror of the thing – except that it was really on a roll this time and didn’t stop after the usual couple of back flips. We spun and spun and spun, as we continuously rose and fell quickly through the air. Every coin we had managed to hit us in the face before pinging to freedom on the concrete below. With every spin and lurch, it seemed more and more likely that the simple metal pin holding the gate closed would give way and we’d be flung through the air. As we gripped the gate, blanched with horror, my sister said something I will never forget: “If I was Jeannie I would blink us out of here RIGHT NOW!” … In retrospect, that’s pretty hilarious to me – we were big fans of the I Dream of Jeannie reruns on TV – but at the time I solemnly and wholeheartedly wished she was Jeannie too.
Thank you for letting me get that off my chest….
Well … as you’ve probably guessed, all my waxing on here is to mark today’s opening of The Ex’s 137th year. Though it’s only mid-afternoon now, I’m sure there’s already been an endless flood of people sweeping through the gates and into the many exhibition buildings and midway.
While I don’t often find myself on a screaming, screeching mechanical ride wondering if I will survive it these days, I fully expect that the next week will find me milling through the various exhibits with a candy apple in hand. And I’ll definitely be stopping in at the farm building. Visiting cows, piglets and horses is way more fun than reading about them.