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Remember This, Newmarket: When the EX was the place to go every August

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights a favourite summertime tradition, the Canadian National Exhibition, and shares childhood memories

It was about this time in August that the whole town was suddenly abuzz with the question that had been on everyone’s lips for generations, when are you going to the EX? Much more than a tradition, it was a rite of passage and the signal that another school year was fast approaching.  

For those who remember attending the Toronto National Exhibition  — better known as the EX — as a child, this article should bring back some warm memories.

The second half of the 19th century had brought technological innovation and rapid economic progress and social change to Canada. Embracing the “spirit” of this age, the Toronto Industrial Exhibition Association was incorporated on March 11, 1879 and its first fair opened  on Sept. 5 of that year. 

The Toronto Industrial Exhibition, a not-for-profit organization founded for the purpose of fostering the development of agriculture, industry, and the arts, was born. The name of the fair was changed from the Toronto Industrial Exhibition to the Canadian National Exhibition in 1912, better representing what the fair had become: A Show Window of the Nation.

Over the last 140 plus years, so many generations have enjoyed the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) as the place to go, the place to celebrate the end of summer, the last hurrah. This is probably why it’s purported as Canada’s largest community event and one of the top 10 agricultural fairs in North America. 

I interviewed my grandparents and my parents years ago and there was certainly a consensus that the CNE was “the place to go”. People went to experience the best and the brightest available, from the latest innovations in technology and commercial products to the greatest performers of the time and, of course, tons of food.    

Many people went to the EX to check out what was new in the world. The CNE was intent on fulfilling its original mandate, featuring exhibits on the latest technological advances in industry and agriculture. 

Some of the advances that CNE patrons were introduced to include:

  • Electric railway transportation in 1883,
  • Edison's phonograph in 1888,
  • The wireless telephone in the 1890s,
  • Radio in 1922,
  • Television in 1939,
  • Plastics and synthetics in the 1940s & 1950s,
  • Virtual Reality in 1992.

Over time, the CNE would continue to grow and to reflect the changes in Canadian society as the emphasis would slowly shift from agriculture to industry. By 1912, the fairgrounds would cover close to 350 acres and included one of the finest amusement parks and permanent exhibition facilities in the world. 

Introducing the population to fine art and the works of skilled artisans was also an important feature of the CNE, beginning in 1879. The CNE Art Department, in conjunction with the Ontario Society of Artists, presented major art exhibitions that, for many years, were unparalleled in Toronto. 

Between 1905 and the 1970s, displays of international and Canadian fine art were housed in a building erected specifically for that purpose, the CNE Art Gallery. 

Over the course of two years (1965 & 1966), the CNE donated a total of 340 works of art to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). These included works by Group of Seven artists:  A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson.

Sports have always been a huge part of the CNE’s attraction. Starting in 1879, the CNE hosted the Caledonian Games and World Class Bicycle Races. 

I always tried to visit the EX during the air show. Watching the aircraft over Lake Ontario is an experience that everyone should check out. I was particularly interested as my uncle, George Luesby, was in the aviation business.

A visit to the EX was an opportunity to visit the Canadian Sports Hall of fame. I could just wander through the building for hours checking out all those sports heroes of mine.

By the time I was old enough to attend the EX, the number and types of sporting events had grown. I can remember aquatic competitions, baseball tournaments (I played one year at the CNE), boxing matches and, of course, the Blue Jays or the Toronto Argos at Exhibition stadium. Over the years, there had been a steady increase in the sporting attractions including archery, automobile racing, basketball, bathtub racing, canoeing, darts, dog derbies, fencing, frisbee, gymnastics, handball, harness racing, judo, karate, motorboat racing, rowing races, sailing, skateboarding, snooker, soccer, marathon swims, track and field, water skiing, weightlifting and bungee jumping.

Many people attended every year for the family entertainment. Many of us saw for the first time, live entertainment ranging from the latest music craze to world famous comedians at the Grandstand. 

After the Second World War, prominent Canadian and international stars graced the stage, acts like Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo and Benny Goodman, which attracted large crowds to the CNE Dance Tent and the International Building. 

Who could forget the CNE midway where we were free to enjoy all the thrills and excitement we could endure? Even before the word “midway” was in use at the turn-of-the-century, the rides, games, and side shows featured at the CNE were attracting young and old. 

Today, as always, it is on the midway of the Canadian National Exhibition where one attains a keen sense of the timelessness of this annual exhibition. I remember one year I managed to win a hula hoop, but I never did succeed in scoring a transistor or a basketball.

In my early years, I remember one of the neighbors or a relative would ask my mom if I wanted to accompany their families on their trek to the CNE. We were poor and my mom always worried that there were limited funds for me to experience everything that the fair had to offer. We settled on my taking a packed lunch to save money for the midway or for an ice cream. As I have said many times about my youth, I never felt a sense of doing without thanks to my mom and her efforts behind the scenes.

When I was about 12 or 13, I remember catching the bus to the CNE, the old Grey Coach CNE Express from in front of the King George Hotel. The pressing question was always when the last bus was heading back to Newmarket and could we fit everything in for the day.  

The annual trip to the CNE with my friends, family, or neighbors was the highlight of the year, no doubt. I remember as a late teen standing and watching as young ladies went crazy as the Osmond Family’s bus arrived for their show, dreaming of one day being famous like that. I saw several shows there, experienced so many firsts in my life, things that I thought one could only experience living in the big city. 

As I always try to do in my articles, I’ll highlight a few items of interest that perhaps you did not know about the EX. Did you know that the CNE Grounds served as a Military Camp during the First World War? The CNE grounds were transformed into a vast military training and housing centre known as: Exhibition Camp. 

During the long years of the Great War, the annual fair proceeded. Most of the troops temporarily moved out during the CNE, but those that remained took part in demonstrations aimed at educating CNE visitors on Canada’s war effort.

Visitors could tour trenches dug by the soldiers, witness them “charging” out of trenches, watch their daily drills, bayonet demonstrations and other military manoeuvres, in addition to experiencing the traditional fun of the fair.

The CNE served as a recruitment and military camp during the Second World War.  This time the CNE would cease operations and the fair was not produced during the war.

2018 marked the 140th Anniversary of the Association. It is not the 140th anniversary of the fair itself, because the CNE was closed from 1942 to 1946 (inclusive) when the grounds were transformed into a military recruitment and training centre. Patty Conklin, who was the CNE’s midway provider at the time, took his rides and games north to Riverdale Park, where he staged the Fair for Britain in 1942 and 1943.

I sometimes feel a little sad for those growing up today. With the availability of the internet and the proliferation of shows throughout the area, I fear that the CNE is no longer the place to go for this generation. To go to the CNE and hear all those CHUM announcers that you knew by heart broadcast live was a treat that I am not sure is still appreciated.

The EX continues to be one of our great annual traditions and a place where one can still experience substantial entertainment. The CNE official website tells us that it still attracts more than 1.4 million visitors annually.

Taking place over the 18 days leading up to and including Labour Day, the CNE is affectionately embraced as an end-of-summer ritual. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fair didn’t take place, but I most certainly will return when they return to re-live the atmosphere and reminisce.

I am sure that you have memories of the CNE from your youth.  Feel free to share your memories in the comments section.

Sources: The Canadian Exhibition Official Website; Photos from the CNE’s Official website

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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