CNE history

10 strange and unusual things you might not know about the CNE

The CNE is one of the longest running major events in Toronto, and with that deep history comes lots of quirky facts and trivia. From freak shows to modernist architecture, the Ex has been home to an array of fascinating cultural phenomenon over the years. We tend to forget this diverse history, but that makes it all the more fascinating to recall.

Here are some quirky things you might not know about the CNE.

1. The CNE was originally called the Toronto Industrial Exhibition and was founded in 1879 to showcase the latest developments in technology and innovation (it took its current name in 1912). Entertainment wasn't its primary raison d'etre until the 20th century.

2. The Exhibition grounds were once home to the most beautiful building in Toronto. The Crystal Palace was completed in 1878 and rivalled similar steel and glass buildings in London, Dublin, and New York. A spark ignited a massive fire in 1906 and the structure burned to the ground.

Miss Toronto CNE

Participants lineup in the Miss Toronto pageant at Exhibition Stadium.

3. One of the highlights of the CNE in the mid 20th century was the Miss Toronto pageant, which took the stage at the grand stand near the end of the Ex. The competition actually lasted until the 1990s before the city pulled the plug.

4. The midway used to feature real freak shows, and not during the sleazy era of the 70s and 80s but back in the early 1900s. Signs advertised "giants, midgets, and bearded ladies!"

5. Speaking of the 70s and 80s, most remember these decades as the Conklin period, but the amusement company actually ran the midway and rides at the CNE between 1937 and 2004. It was Conklin that built the Mighty Flyer roller coaster in 1953, which was an Exhibition icon until in was torn down in the 1990s.

CNE history

The incredible high dive, a popular act at the turn of the century.

6. Perhaps the most outrageous and visually stunning event of the Ex of old was the high dive, where on top of plunging into relatively shallow water from dizzying heights, participants would often set themselves on fire.

7. The final day of the Ex was regularly referred to as Black Monday in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s. The expression is generally tied to mischievous activity youthful visitors got up to on Labour Day and has some highly problematic racial overtones, but the etymology of the phrase goes back way before the Ex.

8. Toronto's oldest building is located at the Exhibition grounds. Scadding Cabin dates all the way back to 1794, though it was originally located on the west bank of the Don River near Queen Street before it was moved in 1879 for the first year of the CNE.

Shell Tower CNE

The Shell Oil Tower rises above the colourful midway of the 1970s.

9. The Ex was a breeding ground for modernist architecture in the 1950s and '60s. Landmark examples include the Food Building (1954), Peter Dickinson's Queen Elizabeth Building (1956), the now-demolished Shell Oil Tower (1955), and the Dufferin Gates (1959).

10. One of the darker aspects of Toronto's past played out at the Stanley Barracks on the Ex grounds during World War I when residents of German, Hungarian, and Turkish decent were interned there as "enemy aliens."

Lead photo by

Toronto Archives

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