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What the CNE used to look like

Posted by Derek Flack / August 12, 2011

CNE History PhotosThe 2011 CNE gets underway in one week. So what better time to devote a historic photo post to the annual late summer tradition? With origins that date back to the late 19th century, The Ex has long been a Toronto fixture. Prior to 1879, the fair had traveled throughout the province, but eventually settled where the crowds were after local stakeholders campaigned to make it a permanent city attraction.

It's almost startling to see just how well attended the CNE was back in the early 20th century. One imagines that half the city congregated at the fairgrounds, which remain located north of Lake Shore Blvd. and west of Strachan Ave. Back then, the grandstand (later Exhibition Stadium) was a huge draw, featuring horse and motorcycle races, elephant shows, and a dangerous-looking sport called auto polo (which is just what it sounds like).

CNE History PhotosThere were also magnificent and scary high diving displays, some of which saw the performer set on fire prior to his plunge. After the stadium was expanded to accommodate pro sports teams — both the Blue Jays and the Argos called it home prior to the building of the SkyDome — this element of the CNE faded away. Exhibition Stadium was finally demolished in 1999, and as of 2006 BMO field occupies its former site.

Although its basic configuration has remained the same for many years, the midway was also a very different place. Operated by Conklin between 1937 and 2004, freak shows were a major attraction until the late 1970s, and even I can remember from my early visits a certain seediness that seemed to permeate the area.

CNE History PhotosAs Rick McGinnis wrote for us a while ago, "[The Ex], like so many of Toronto's landmarks, seems to constantly inspire us to agonizing reevaluation in an apparently endless cycle. In spite of its longevity, and the million and a half visitors who pay for admission every year, the annual disassembling of the midway inevitably inspires a flurry of brow-furrowing worries about the fair's fate and future that have the general character of a fit of guilt after a binge."

There's a rich history here, but one often wonders if and how it will survive in the years to come. The event has already been considerably sanitized, in many cases is for the better, but now lacks a certain excitement level that used to be standard. Here are photos of the Ex in all its glory.


Grandstand ticket lineups:

Fireworks show:

Horse show at the grandstand:

Crystal Palace (lost to fire):

Ruins of the grandstand after fire (1906):

Crowds at the Manufacturers Building:

CNE fountain and crowds:

Dufferin Gates:


Winner of Toronto baby contest:

Fire diver(!):

Freak show:

The Midway:

Midway game featuring Kaiser Wilhelm (1914-15):

War message:

Midway performers:

Auto polo:

Soldier training camp (1915):

The Midway:

Eastern Entrance (1916):


Midway crowds (wow):
CNE History Photos

Midway crowds:


Princes' Gate:

Midway performers:

High diver:

Ferris wheels at night:

CNE grounds (1925):

The Midway (1928):


A giant flagpole (take note, Giorgio Mammoliti):

Automotive Building:

Bike marathon:

Bike race:


Food Building:

Bandshell crowds:


Miss Toronto Contest (1951)
Miss Toronto CNE 1951

High diver at the Aquarama:

Garbage removal:

Midway at night:

Masons dinner:

Food Building:
201188-CNE-Food-building-late 50s-f1257_s1057_it5680.jpg



Shell Oil Tower:


Aerial of the midway:

See also:

Photos with items and fonds information from the Toronto Archives. Other photos from the CNE Archives.



yubad / August 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm
Thanks for sharing these photos! The only thing I recognize is Princes' Gates!
the lemur / August 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm
What happened to the Shell Oil Tower? Looks like quite a structure. I wish we still had a Crystal Palace too.

And when did men stop wearing hats?
W. K. Lis / August 12, 2011 at 12:31 pm
Rob Ford was, as councilor, part of the CNE board. He also did not show up for the CNE board meetings.
Dmitri / August 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm
Sweet. I'd say it seems to have been a more exciting place back then, more for the adults than children too. I mean, flaming dude jumping from a tower?! That's just awesome.
Some Guy / August 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm
Ah the good old "Congress of Fat People"...
Jeremy Gilbert / August 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm
A great collection of photos here... when I went last year, there was a very interesting display talking about the burlesque shows they had in the 50s and 60s - Toronto was so straight-laced that these shows were there as an "exotica" display... and the only way for Toronto men (and boys) to get this sort of titillation...

Those freak show images from the 1910s are somewhat misleading in that I can recall going to the Ex as a teen in the 1970s and they still had them, when the Midway was a rather seedy place.
Frank replying to a comment from Jeremy Gilbert / August 12, 2011 at 01:01 pm
It's not really misleading when you're basically quoting the article at the end of your comment.
ginnee / August 12, 2011 at 01:19 pm
The CNE used to be THE place to go and see and buy new things that you wouldn't see or get to see through the year.

Things changed when trade shows became the norm for new appliances, fashions, cars, etc. year-round. The street fests with all their music and food tastings also put a nail in the CNE's heart. I remember losing a lot of interest when the pavillions seemed to be taken over with junk I could buy in dollar stores. I haven't been back since CNE stadium was torn down and concerts moved to the Molson Amphitheatre or Skydome (Rogers Centre).
Jeremy Gilbert replying to a comment from Frank / August 12, 2011 at 01:41 pm
D'oh! How did I miss that... I repeated a line there about the freak shows and seediness in the 70s almost word for word...
MrRenfrew / August 12, 2011 at 01:44 pm
Its the 'Princes' Gates' not Prince's Gates. The gates were open by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and his brother H.R.H. Prince George -
Jeremy Gilbert replying to a comment from Frank / August 12, 2011 at 01:47 pm
About that Shell Tower... in the 70s it was the Bulova tower, and I recall standing on the lookout part in 1974, hoping to see Evil Knievel leap over 14 or so trucks... The band Lighthouse "opened" for him, but we were all kicked out before the mighty leap. (He did his Snake River fiasco later that same summer). Some of us sneeringly called Lighthouse "s---house." Band member Howard Shore would have the last laugh, though, having a highly successful career composing soundtracks for David Cronenburg and others, most famously composing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. But I digress...
Derek replying to a comment from MrRenfrew / August 12, 2011 at 01:54 pm
Right you are, of course. Apologies for the error.
jeremy Gilbert replying to a comment from MrRenfrew / August 12, 2011 at 01:57 pm
The two princes. Some people may assume that the "Prince George" was the future King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. He in fact was the very colourful fourth son of George V, the Duke of Kent (created 1934), who died in a 1942 plane crash.
Ira replying to a comment from the lemur / August 12, 2011 at 02:07 pm
I think this year, all men should head back to the Ex with the skimmer/boater hats. lets bring back style to the Ex.
Aaron / August 12, 2011 at 03:35 pm
"Where are you going, dear?"

"Down to the Exhibition! This war is really driving me bonkers, see? I'm going to go throw a few balls at Willie the War Lord's teeth! Maybe win a cigar! Why you askin'? Get off my case, ya dandy!"
iSkyscraper / August 12, 2011 at 04:41 pm
A favourite topic. As I type this I have a photo of the original Exhibition Stadium (pre-baseball, football only) during the Ex taped to the wall of my office. Note that there were at least three grandstands, the last of which was incorporated into the baseball-era Ex.

The crowds are not at all surprising when you consider that the Ex was like having the following events all at once:

- Paris Air Show
- Canada's Wonderland
- Barnum & Bailey Circus (freak show part)
- The Auto Show
- The Boat Show
- The Home Show
- Canadian International Farm Show
- Jazz Festival
- Cirque du Soleil
- Casino Rama
- Lady Gaga and 13 other pop stars at the ACC
- Toronto Indy
- ComicCon
- e3 Expo

and so on. In other words, every single event that showcased new stuff, new entertainment and escapist games all in a single two-week period, in a city where there were few options to get out of town in the summer (no cottages, no roadtrips to America, no flights to Europe) and no at-home entertainment (TV, DVD, internet).

The interesting question is that given the loss of nearly every one of its marquee attractions, what should the Ex be about now? Military and Flea Market and weak multicultural programming seem to be the only tentpoles left. I for one would be very interested in seeing the Ex chase down the tech fair and video game e-sports events, which could still fit in the exhibition halls, and return to its "new stuff + fun crap" roots.
Andrew / August 12, 2011 at 07:36 pm
I've been going since I was at least 10 (almost 20 years). The food building is always the biggest draw for me. Tiny Tom and Ice Cream waffles. YUM!! The crowds have diminished quite a bit, I remember the midway used to be wall to wall ppl. I think Wonderland has had a big effect on the crowds. It is more expensive but I pay $5 after 5pm and pay for what I want when I enter. It's a summer tradition for my friends and family and I will surely make 2 visits this year as I have in the past. Any old pics of inside the food building or rides like the flyer coaster?
richard / August 12, 2011 at 08:59 pm
I have some more pictures if you're interested.
sct / August 12, 2011 at 09:40 pm
great pictures. funny how people paid to see fat people! :) even the 80's was different from how the CNE is today.
jmar / August 12, 2011 at 10:20 pm
this is a great post!
i would like more pics.

CP replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / August 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm
You troll on every local website, every day, just to write something snarky about Rob Ford, don't you? Get a life.
Me / August 13, 2011 at 12:25 am
My memories of the Ex in the early to mid 60s, when I was a kid, was being given $3.00 by my parents and it had to last the day on the midway. You went to the food building for free samples of all the different products - so you didn't buy any lunch! They gave out free paper book jackets with different advertisements on them and you collected them all and put them on your school text books to keep them clean. And one of the shots of the Midway shows a stand for "Honey Dew" - an orange drink that was a special treat that we only got once a year - at the Ex! We went to see all the horses and farm animals - that building stunk! The International Building (??) had products from all around the world - I always liked that. And I remember one year when I was wearing my "squall jacket" (like a windbreaker) that had a buttoned pocket on the sleeve, someone stole half of my $3.00 for the day out of it! I remember rides like Laugh in the Dark (or was it Laff in the Dark?), the teacups, and the fun house with the mirrors that made you look fat or tall and thin. We each got a free pass at the end of the year through school, so my parents basically paid 3.00 a day for each of us to go on rides and play games, and I suppose their own entrance fee. And at the end there was the air show, where we'd park on the side of the Lakeshore and watch. It was great fun ... and if you took the streetcar home, everybody had those horns ... like vuvuzelas! Fun memories!
RMS / August 13, 2011 at 01:48 am
All that the the Ex really "sells" now is nostalgia. I'm 38, and I've gone every year ever since I can remember. In the last few years, its been my wife that has really insisted that we go. Each year, we mill about for a bit, play a game or two, and wonder why we bothered coming. Then the next year we end up going back again.

I'd love to see some redevelopment of the Ex that brings some real marquee attractions while still honouring the history and tradition of the institution.

It's funny seeing how well dressed people are in the older photos. My wife and I always joke now about how a large portion of the crowd going now looks like a "people of Wallmart" convention is being held.
GL / August 13, 2011 at 01:59 am
Time to get me a boater hat. Any suggestions on where I can find one?
Taylor / August 13, 2011 at 02:21 am
People used to always make an effort and dress up to go out - even to go to the doctor. My grandparents raised me, and that value has always stayed with me.

There are still some decent attractions. I thought the ice show was pretty good last year. Vaughn Chipeur was amazing. The dog show is cute, and the history of rock stuff was cool. I like the Youth Talent Show; some of the oldies singers at the Bandshell are sweet, and the CNE seems like the one time/place where Toronto is friendly.
abg / August 13, 2011 at 08:35 am
whats the midway?
Neil replying to a comment from Me / August 13, 2011 at 11:24 am
Thanks for sharing that personal story with us, Me.

As for the Congress of Fat People -- it's just too common now to be an attraction. Especially with things like the deep fried butter and donut hamburger they're selling.
Darla M / August 13, 2011 at 06:50 pm
Love the photos. One of my favourite exhibits when I visit the CNE is their display of the CNE in days gone by. Thanks!
susan g / August 16, 2011 at 09:24 pm
Does anyone remember the Hell Drivers, that was my favorite thing to see at the CNE, I still remember my parents buying me the official Hell Drivers helmet.
Jeremy Gilbert / August 17, 2011 at 12:25 pm
It's not the best photo, but I took this in 1982 featuring (for me) two icons of the Ex - the Alpine Way (long gone) and the Zipper (still here every year!).
CT / August 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm
I'd love to see pics of the Derby Racer (horse racing carousel) that used to be at the Ex...loved riding that one as a kid!

Fantomex replying to a comment from Taylor / September 4, 2011 at 08:56 pm
I'm sorry, but when suits and dresses cost a bundle, and employment is scarce, dressing up should be reserved for <i>really special occasions</i> (weddings, funerals, graduations, prom nights, job interviews, your job) <B>NOT</b> the Ex or the doctor. It just sounds completely wack,and a waste of good clothing for no reason other than you can look smart and sharp.

If people want to see those days come back, the we all should demand that higher wages and salaries be paid so that people can afford to wear such expensive clothing just to go to the movies, dinner, the Ex, or the doctor (all I was told by my mom is that you should be clean when you go to the doctor-and <i>NOTHING</i> more than that.) Better yet, why not try to just live in the times that we are living in, and stop trying to go back to the past?
lose fat / November 11, 2011 at 10:30 pm
I don't disagree with you!!!
Michael replying to a comment from the lemur / December 6, 2011 at 12:45 am
I believe the Shell Oil Tower later became the Bulova Tower. It was simply a structure to climb for a higher vantage point and a meeting place at the big clock. It was taken down in the mid eighties.
Norma / February 25, 2012 at 12:44 am
The CNE today is a far cry from what it once was. I can remember spending most of the day in the food building with my friends. I can't believe that we stood in line just to get a small Dixie cup filled with Niblet corn. LOL Back in the 50's I actually wore a dress to the EX. Like most kids I loved the Midway. To actually have won at one of the games was such a joy; but carrying around a gigantic stuffed, pink poodle was not. My favourite rides were The Flyer and that one (forget the name of it) ere you stood in a circular room and as it spun around, the floor dropped down and you were left sticking to the wall?

I loved it when they had a booth where you could cut your own 45 rpm record. Oh the EX was so exciting back in the 50's and 60's.
John / April 17, 2012 at 04:32 pm
There used to be a restaurant under the grandstand called Stoodlies or Studeleys or Studelieghs.Does anyone know the spelling and when it existed?I remember going to see my Mom(waitressing) in or around '50' or '51' and got shooed out because she was working.
Samma / July 26, 2012 at 10:37 am
This was a wonderful find. I love seeing old pictures of Toronto when it still had some personality. Personally I miss the nightly fireworks the CNE used to have up until a few years ago. And yes, it would be nice to see dresses and hats instead of sweats and baseball caps! But that goes for everyplace now.

Try reading Toronto author Bernice Thurman Hunter's BOOKY for a birds-eye view of being a child going to the Ex in the Depression. It's marvellous!
Alex / July 26, 2012 at 11:46 am
Back when people wore suits, hats, and dresses all the time everyone looked the exact same. I'm glad we now dress individually, it's much more interesting.

The Ex doesn't have much anymore at it, you go once or twice and you've seen everything, and then the next year they have the exact same stuff. They knocked down the sports museum and some other things for the soccer stadium, but I don't think they even use the soccer stadium during the ex. Why not have large shows there, or even pick-up soccer games? Just stand in line and you can play for free for 10 minutes or something.

I wish the Ex focused on having at least one new large show every year. Or like someone else said, use some of that indoor space for a video game convention or something.
Simon Tarses replying to a comment from Alex / July 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm
IIRC, Sega used to have a display of their video games and systems every year at the EX; Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo should do what Sega used to do and have one.
Lucas Silveira replying to a comment from richard / August 18, 2012 at 01:42 pm
I would love to have prints of some of these photos. Specifically the fire diver. These are amazing.
NostalgicMan / October 19, 2012 at 03:18 am
What was that Midway ride, you know the one that they use to train astronauts? Seemed fitting for a young lad. I remember I lost my lunch at the food building. One of the greatest days of my youth.
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:40 am
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:40 am
i like cool stufff
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:41 am
me coool like u brooos
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:41 am
booobies are ntoo giuuddn
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:42 am
my mom likes u :X
Heather / May 14, 2013 at 07:00 pm
Do you have any photo of the butter carvings that were in the Food Building, I remember seeing Marilyn Bell carved in butter as a child, would love to see a photo of that if possible
Nikki / May 23, 2013 at 12:03 am
I love the bicycle event pictures. The bike marathon must have been the old version of the Becel Ride for Heart. I was in the Canada Day bike race in the Ex back in 1987 and 1988.
brian sokoloski / July 6, 2013 at 04:56 pm
brian sokoloski replying to a comment from CT / July 6, 2013 at 05:10 pm
NotBrian replying to a comment from brian sokoloski / July 6, 2013 at 05:57 pm
Brian, your caps lock appears to be on.
brian sokoloski / July 6, 2013 at 06:38 pm
THE CNE should make some dvd movies from the past ,,available for sale ,,it is a shame did not take more pictures while i was there ,,of the sights..thinking everything would be there forever..
Peter Mykusz / August 31, 2013 at 06:32 am
A current view of the CNE is on this video:
Howard Cable / September 3, 2013 at 11:50 am
A great post! Wonderful memories! Thank you.
Michael / March 18, 2014 at 12:33 am
The Shell Oil Tower was torn down to accommodate the Molson Indy start/finish line and pits. Many were upset at the time as it was an example of what I BELIEVE was called international architecture.
JMB2 / August 14, 2014 at 10:20 pm
The B.O. in those crowds just had to be horrendous.
GregS / August 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm
If the Ex brings back only one thing shown in these pictures, please let it be auto polo. That sounds awesomely dangerous.
fenchiemcbean / August 22, 2014 at 11:44 am
Going to the EX in the 60's was so much fun. I worked at the ex in the early 70's after school & weekends. Then 2005 we had a booth there. Close the whole thing down & dump everyone who on the executive committee and boards - bring in a whole new fresh and clean and perspective. There is so much potential and it's being run (sorry not run, but left to die a very slow death) by brain dead lazy zombies. There is so much out there to bring in and what do they have? Cheap tube socks and warehouse outlet flea market junk overflowing everywhere - WHERE IN THE HECK IN THE INNOVATION THERE???
Emmie replying to a comment from Me / August 29, 2014 at 04:02 pm
Thanks for this, ME, and we share the same initials! Your recollections are spot on...I couldn't have written it better. Except; remember the Pure Foods Building had a sample food concession by Bicks, and they'd give you a little green plastic pickle pin for your jacket?
An aunt of mine was a model for Kitten Sweater clothing. She stood unmoving, posed as a mannequin for what seemed like forever, with people making faces and such to try to get her to blink! Ahhhh... The good old days....๐Ÿ˜„ ๐ŸŽ ๐ŸŽกโ›ฒ๏ธ๐ŸŽข๐ŸŽช
Emmie replying to a comment from Fantomex / August 29, 2014 at 04:15 pm
You can get great dresses and neat clothing at Giant Tiger. Just saying'.
Back in the day people wore their "good clothes" as a form of celebratory wear at going out and spending some hard earned dash. Ladies liked to look feminine and men were proud to look like men. That's where the expression was coined as to who was the boss in the family. It was the one "who wore the pants". Jeans were worn by farmers only as work wear, or by the very poor. but having said that even the very poor actually, still wore suits and trousers of wool, might be a few patches. People took pride in how they looked, and didn't just dress sloppy for comfort. Hats were a must as people didn't wash their hair everyday and to keep the sun out of their eyes.
I dare say it was the "track pant " athletic purposeful garb phenomena that started this whole sloppy jogging pants look, that a lot of un-athletic people claimed and started taking to wearing at buffets for comfort. And you know what? Most people that wear joggers, can't, LOL! They're too out of shape.
Emmie / September 7, 2014 at 05:04 pm
According to a friend of mine who went to the CNE back in the good ol days, the spin ride where you stood up and gravity pinned you against the wall was called The Rotor".
Charles de Gruchy / November 27, 2014 at 09:08 pm
I think we all remember meeting friends and family at the Ex. As we eat at the fabric of what the Exhibition was to all of us I think the more compelling the ideas of what it was becomes. We are all sentimental when it comes to THE EX!!

Paul G / December 29, 2014 at 10:51 am
Being 61 years old, I can actually remember a small period of time when the Ex was open after Labour Day. As my Dad out it didn't last long as the student labour market wasn't there in support. But bit of video that showed the EX in the 1960s can be found in DVD of Littlest Hobo first version. Called "Honored Guest", some of the episode was shot around the Prince's Gate, Horse Palace and the Automotive Building. Plus it is in colour.
Spike replying to a comment from abg / May 31, 2015 at 05:00 pm
When I was a teenager in the 1970's I remember the overwhelming feeling when entered the gates. The smell of the food, the noise of the rides/midway and the electric feeling overall. But now it just feels sparse like they are trying to fill in all the holes of exhibits of yesterday. The grounds have shrunk and it feels like a flea market (cell phone vendors, banks, insurance brokers etc)
Obvious the city has events year round which have stolen the gleam of the CNE. Still go every few years, but it's not and never will be the same.
Spike replying to a comment from Emmie / May 31, 2015 at 05:16 pm
Yes, we are devolving. Nobody wants to listen to me, they say I'm getting old and grumpy. But I know that I'm right. The way people used to treat each other is long gone. Younger generations just do what they want (regardless if right/wrong or good/bad) and eventually it sticks and we lose a little more of what we had.
The word respect no longer has the value of its past.
Glad I was taught properly and lived as a child/youth/teenager when we called adults Mr & Mrs. Now its by first name.
I really do like the modern day luxuries and it would be hard to go back but just seeing the old pics reminds me of the good ole days.
Irene Markoja / June 5, 2015 at 11:47 am
The 1970s were great years to be kids. My family and I would take the GO train from Oakville to the Ex each year. We all had a good time, and it had something for everyone: the midway for the kids, the horticulture building for the adults and the coliseum for the Hee Haw in all of us. Over the years, though, everything that made the Ex so magical disappeared; even my little four year old niece prefers Wonderland or Darien Lake. A renewed excitement over the Food Building, the Cronut aside, shows us that the Ex isn't washed up yet, though.
Mark S replying to a comment from susan g / August 11, 2015 at 03:37 pm
Haha yes the hell drivers were awesome! Remember the clown , Jasper the jerk who used to play in the traffic?
grant heggie / August 18, 2015 at 04:47 pm
These are great photos and a very good article as well. Once again Blog TO you hit another home run. Thanks very much.

mark replying to a comment from Simon Tarses / August 22, 2015 at 06:32 pm
sony and nintendo have had trailers near the midway to try out new games, nintendo (last year they were promoting mario kart 8) still does (though only on sept 7 the last day of the cne this year....) , sony i havent seen in awhile....
Snikczar / September 8, 2015 at 05:05 pm
Yes most of the iconic stuff I knew from the 70s /80s is gone and now you can't freely access many of the buildings anymore like the automotive, horse palace, the coliseum, etc....
I remember a huge butter train sculpture in the coliseum in a display window on the outer ring of the area itself, I haven't found a picture of this anywhere if one even exists...
I still like to go at least once a year, free admission with air miles!

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