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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.

1900s

Grandstand ticket lineups:
201188-CNE-ticket-lineups-1900s-f1244_it0275.jpg

Fireworks show:
201188-CNE-fireworks-1905-f1568_it0427.jpg

Horse show at the grandstand:
201188-CNE-horse-show-grandstand-1905-f1568_it0385.jpg

Crystal Palace (lost to fire):
crystal-palace-20101227-1906-Crystal_Palace_ca_1906.jpg

Ruins of the grandstand after fire (1906):
201188-cne-grandstand-fire-1906-f1244_it0012.jpg

Crowds at the Manufacturers Building:
201188-CNE-crowrds-manufactures-building-1908-f1568_it0388.jpg

CNE fountain and crowds:
201188-CNE-fountain-crowds-1908-f1244_it0265.jpg

Dufferin Gates:
201188-CNE-dufferin-gates-1908-f1244_it0272.jpg

1910s

Winner of Toronto baby contest:
201188-CNE-baby-prize-1910-f1244_it0662.jpg

Fire diver(!):
201188-cne-fire-diver-1910s-f1244_it0190.jpg

Freak show:
201188-CNE-freak-show-1912-f1244_it2516.jpg

The Midway:
201188-CNE-Midway-1913-f1244_it0279f.jpg

Midway game featuring Kaiser Wilhelm (1914-15):
201188-CNE-Kaiser-Wilhelm-game-1914-15-f1244_it0880.jpg

War message:
201188-CNE-midway-1914-war-message-f1244_it0877.jpg

Midway performers:
201188-CNE-midway-performers-1914-f1244_it0279b.jpg

Auto polo:
201188-cne-auto-polo-1914-1920-f1244_it0198.jpg

Soldier training camp (1915):
201188-CNE-soldier-camp-1915-f1244_it0777c.jpg

The Midway:
201188-CNE-Midway-1915-f1244_it0913.jpg

Eastern Entrance (1916):
201188-CNE-esatern-entrance-1916-s0372_ss0084_it0223.jpg

1920s

Midway crowds (wow):
CNE History Photos

Midway crowds:
201188-CNE-Midway-crowds-1920-f1244_it2015.jpg

Postcard:
20100227-pc-cne.jpg

Princes' Gate:
201188-CNE-princes-gates-1920s-v01_01.jpg

Midway performers:
201188-CNE-Midway-performers-1920-f1244_it2374.jpg

High diver:
201188-cne-high-diver-f1244_it1028i.jpg

Ferris wheels at night:
201188-CNE-Ferris-wheels-1924-f1244_it2017b.jpg

CNE grounds (1925):
201188-CNE-grounds-1925-s0372_ss0041_it0160.jpg

The Midway (1928):
201188-CNE-Midway-1928-s0071_it6193.jpg

1930s

A giant flagpole (take note, Giorgio Mammoliti):
201188-CNE-flagpole-1930-f1244_it0631b.jpg

Automotive Building:
201188-CNE-automotive-building-1937-f1231_it1254.jpg

Bike marathon:
201188-CNE-bicycles-1930-f1257_s1057_it5728.jpg

Bike race:
201188-Cne-bike-race-better-f1244_it2007.jpg

1940s

Food Building:
201188-CNE-1941-Food-building-s0372_ss0001_it1570.jpg

Bandshell crowds:
201188-CNE-bandshell-crowds-1946-f1257_s1057_it2369.jpg

1950s

Miss Toronto Contest (1951)
Miss Toronto CNE 1951

High diver at the Aquarama:
201188-CNE-diver-aquarama-1950s-f1257_s1057_it5721.jpg

Garbage removal:
201188-CNE-garbage-removal-1951-s0372_ss0100_it0568.jpg

Midway at night:
201188-CNE-midway-night-1952-f1257_s1057_it5687.jpg

Masons dinner:
201188-CNE-masons-1955-f1257_s1057_it5764.jpg

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

1960s

Midway:
201188-CNE-midway-1960s.jpg

Shell Oil Tower:
201188-CNE-Shell-Oil-Tower-60s-s1465_fl0150_id0013.jpg

1980s

Aerial of the midway:
201188-Ex-stadium-1980s-maybe-v05_01.jpg

See also:

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

Discussion

61 Comments

yubad / August 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm
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Thanks for sharing these photos! The only thing I recognize is Princes' Gates!
the lemur / August 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm
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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
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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
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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
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Ah the good old "Congress of Fat People"...
Jeremy Gilbert / August 12, 2011 at 12:54 pm
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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 - http://www.torontohistory.org/Pages_PQR/Princes_Gates.html
Jeremy Gilbert replying to a comment from Frank / August 12, 2011 at 01:47 pm
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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
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Right you are, of course. Apologies for the error.
jeremy Gilbert replying to a comment from MrRenfrew / August 12, 2011 at 01:57 pm
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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
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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
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"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
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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
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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
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I have some more pictures if you're interested.
sct / August 12, 2011 at 09:40 pm
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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Time to get me a boater hat. Any suggestions on where I can find one?
Taylor / August 13, 2011 at 02:21 am
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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
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whats the midway?
Neil replying to a comment from Me / August 13, 2011 at 11:24 am
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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
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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
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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
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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!). http://www.flickr.com/photos/jer1961/5235814147/
CT / August 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm
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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
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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
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I don't disagree with you!!!
Michael replying to a comment from the lemur / December 6, 2011 at 12:45 am
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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hiiiiiii
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:40 am
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i like cool stufff
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:41 am
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me coool like u brooos
ahehehehe
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:41 am
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booobies are ntoo giuuddn
ghhh / November 2, 2012 at 10:42 am
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my mom likes u :X
Heather / May 14, 2013 at 07:00 pm
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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
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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
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THE CNE HAD MANY GOOD ATTRACTIONS ,,LIKE THE SHELL TOWER ,THE DERBY RACER ,THE FLYER ,THE ALPINE WAY ,,AND THE SHOPSYS HOT DOG AND CORNED BEEF STAND ,THIS WAS CANADAS LARGEST HOT DOG STAND ,,THESE ATTRACTIONS SHOULD BE BROUGHT BACK...AND MANY MORE ...
brian sokoloski replying to a comment from CT / July 6, 2013 at 05:10 pm
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THERE IS ANOTHER DERBY RACER RIDE IN ENGLAND ,,DO A SEARCH THERE IS A VIDEO CLIP ON INTERNET ,,THERE WAS AROUND 4 OF THESE RIDES MADE AROUND THE WORLD ,,I RODE THE DERBY RACER ALSO IN THE 1960,S ,,THIS WAS REALLY COOL..THE CNE TOKE THE DERBY RACER APART AND SOLD OFF IN PARTS TO MAKE WAY FOR THE STADIUM ,,THEY SHOULD HAVE MOVED AND REBUILT ON SITE OR SOLD OFF TO ANOTHER CANADIAN EXHIBITION ,,
NotBrian replying to a comment from brian sokoloski / July 6, 2013 at 05:57 pm
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Brian, your caps lock appears to be on.
brian sokoloski / July 6, 2013 at 06:38 pm
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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
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A current view of the CNE is on this video:
https://vimeo.com/73181193
Howard Cable / September 3, 2013 at 11:50 am
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A great post! Wonderful memories! Thank you.
Michael / March 18, 2014 at 12:33 am
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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
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The B.O. in those crowds just had to be horrendous.
GregS / August 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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".

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