Fair Days

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 annual event was moved 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:

Morning Chronicle September 18 1850
We’ve got a real joker here “some of the the ‘boar pigs’ go ‘the whole hog’.” … Even when discussing prize pigs, it’s weird to see “obesity” used as a compliment.  From the Morning Chronicle, September 18, 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 as host, in 1858, the city decided to spring for a venue that would really put their fair on the map:

Toronto Fair Toronto Daily Mail September 7th 1889 Part One
Some reminiscing of the early fair and the Crystal Palace, from Toronto Daily Mail, September 7th, 1889.

And here we have some florid ceremony-speak about the laying of the cornerstone:   

Ontario. Board of Agriculture of Upper Canada Transactions Vol 3
It must’ve been quite the stone if Vankoughnet had to be assisted by three other guys. (I’m kidding, I know what they mean there.) From volume 3 of Transactions of the Ontario Board of Agriculture of Upper Canada, 1859

If you’re like me and always wonder what’s been put in a cornerstone’s time capsule, you might appreciate this:

Cornerstone items description Volume 3 transactions
I can understand the coins, almanac and newspapers – and the bottle of wheat sounds kinda neat – but, good grief, the by-laws of the Board of Arts and Manufactures? Snooze-city, man. From the Ontario Board of Agriculture of Upper Canada, 1859.

But enough of all the pomp, let’s have a look at the Crystal Palace itself:

Crystal Palace 1858-1879 ing St. W., n. side, at present Sudbury St.
Located on King St near Sudbury, the Crystal Palace was very close to where the current Ex grounds are.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Unfortunately, though, it didn’t weather well and started to fall apart:

Crystal Palace Repairs Irish Canadian July 20 1870
It really must’ve been coming apart – I think they’ve covered off everything that could go wrong in a building. From the Irish Canadian, July 20, 1870.

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.

Crystal Palace 1884
Did the photographer mean to get that guy in there or did he just wander into the shot, all “Blimey, are you takin’ a photograph?” Crystal Palace, the second.  1884.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

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:

Glamourous Blond 1896
If she’s heading to the fair, she appears to be taking a circuitous route.  But she’s looks smashing doing it, anyhow.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Might as well have a look at the back cover while we’re at it:

Glamourous Ram
I can say with some confidence that that is the most handsome and distinguished goat I’ve ever seen. …it is a goat, right?  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

A-ha!  A map of where you could find the various attractions:

1896 Industrial Fair Ground Map
If you enjoyed a good lawn, you were in luck. Actually, to be fair, that’s quite an impressive list of features there on the right.  From the Industrial Fair Ground Map, 1896.

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:

Index to prize list 1896
It’s hard to imagine how the “Dates of Fairs in the United States and Canada” afforded one a prize.  From the Canadian Industrial Fair program, 1896, courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

And what’s a fair without fireworks?

Pompeii at the Industrial Fair 1886
I know the destruction of Pompeii happened long ago, but still – this doesn’t seem in the best taste. From the 1886 Industrial Fair, courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

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:

1899 programme
In the great tradition of old restaurant advertising, there is no mention of what type of food you could expect. They didn’t even bother to assure you of its quality. But they did spring for the extra cost of an underwhelming duck cartoon. From the Industrial Exhibition program, 1899, courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Oh look at this, an evening program – now we’re talking.  No doubt there was some fine entertainment on offer:

Evening Programme 1899
A human trapeze!  Acrobats!  Now that’s more like the fairs, I know.  Of course, I can’t begin to imagine what the heck Big and Little Rooster or a Comedy Wire was all about, but at least they sound fun.  And of course, you have some log rolling.  We’re in Canada after all – it’s the law.  From the Industrial Exhibition program, 1899, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

But that’s not all …

1899 evening programme cont
I don’t even know where to start with this one – except to say that I really don’t like the idea of head to head balancing.  From the Industrial Exhibition program, 1899, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

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:

Montreal gazette August 25 1908 four thousand pigeons
Oh boy! What kid doesn’t love a pigeon? From the Montreal Gazette, August 25th, 1908.

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.

16 thoughts on “Fair Days

  1. This was so much fun! I love your memories of the fair when you were growing up – it really brought back some memories that I have of similar experiences. I can remember how excited we were to ride all of the rides, and the food was so much a part of the experience as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thank you! I’m so happy to hear it brought back fond memories for you too! There’s really nothing quite as magical as a summer fair when you’re a kid, is there? Even now, the sights and sounds of the midway – not to mention, the scent of corn dogs and cotton candy – give me a pang of excitement.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Ex sounds amazing, and I love love love that second Crystal Palace. I would have loved to go to a Victorian fair or exposition; I’m fascinated by the Great Exposition in London and all the old World’s Fairs. What is it with Crystal Palaces getting destroyed though?
    I guess it’s fair time everywhere now…I was just thinking today how much I wish I was going to the Geauga County Fair this year, which is held this weekend. I went every year until I moved to Britain, and it is the best. I never really went on the rides though, because my mother said they were unsafe (and your near-death experience on the Zipper probably proves that, though it did make me laugh!) and my main priority was usually shoving as much cotton candy, elephant ears, and French waffles in my face as humanly possible, which riding rides isn’t terribly compatible with. British fairs really suck, so I’ve learned not to even try here anymore to avoid the inevitable disappointment.
    Oh, and I love that goat! I noticed how handsome he was right away, before I even saw your caption!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that second Crystal Palace was especially beautiful. I forgot to mention it (because I distracted myself with so many other things) but it didn’t last long either – they tore it down in 1906. Makes you wonder what they were putting them together with –silly putty?
      Aw, I wish you could go to the fair! Late August just isn’t the same without the promise of fried batter and barkers. And I’m really sorry to hear that the British ones are lousy. How do they manage it? Seems like a pretty simple formula to screw up.
      I don’t blame your mom. Now that I’m older and have a healthy fear of injury and death, I wonder how anyone gets on those things. Except the teacups – they seem safe enough. Though, as you pointed out, probably not with a belly full of carnie food.
      Ha! I love that handsome goat, even though he does look rather full of himself. My mom and I are actually heading to The Ex tonight and I’m pretty excited to visit the farm building. Last year they had some alpacas that were so cute I wanted to smuggle one home.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love the farm buildings the best (next to the food). I probably shouldn’t on an ethical level, because I’m sure a lot of the animals end up as meat, but I love petting all the goats and pigs, and admiring the many hilarious breeds of chickens.
        British fairs suck because they tend to be very commercial, where they’re just full of stalls of people trying to sell you crap, and not much else. There are usually only a few animals, and pretty much no carnival food in the sense I’d think of it. Maybe some greasy old mini conveyor belt donuts and probably candy floss, but definitely no funnel cakes, elephant ears, caramel apples, or random battered things on sticks.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Wasn’t it beautiful? Incredible what they used to do with glass. Makes me wish they’d use it for more than the same bland boxes they build now. (Sorry, that’s an old gripe of mine.) So happy to hear you liked the piece – it was such a treat to get your note.


  3. I’m glad the Ex still attracts people – and that you’ve given it the spotlight in your unique blog, Kate. Thanks too for the treats you share in the great pictures in each and every post.
    Happy September to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Cynthia! I greatly appreciate your support and kind words. Sharing these stories brings me a lot of joy and so it means a lot to hear that you find them interesting too. Happy September!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He was actually known for messing with people a lot of the time when he was doing that. In addition to “do you wanna go faster?” He sometimes would freak people out by saying things like “hang on, we’re going upside down!”

        Liked by 1 person

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