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Brides, rides and killer Clydesdales: Your memories of the CNE

The giant Wave Swinger ride in action at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, circa 1979.

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Happy 100th, CNE.

Well, that's cheating a bit. You're technically 133. But it was in 1912 that Toronto, attention-hungry and self-important as always, rebranded you the Canadian National Exhibition.

But how you've grown. You started out, like many local exhibitions, as an "early form of mass media, where people would go to discover what was new and exciting," as historian James MacNevin, who's chronicled you for six years, puts it.

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Once called the Toronto Industrial Fair (among other names), you initially stood for innovation – a stage for the latest in agricultural tools and technological advances (dessicated rolled wheat!). Gradually, these glimpses of the future made room for the lowbrow and the sensational: freak shows and showcases of "exotic" cultures from around the world. In fact, until the 1960s, you even flashed your naughty side – strip shows weren't uncommon. (They were largely tame, Mr. MacNevin notes, though perhaps "not by the standards of Toronto the Good.")

And then, as material historian Michael Prokopow notes, amusement became the draw – loop de loops and gravity drops – as fairs endeavoured to become a destination for all people.

So now, 100 years later, we have blue-ribbon cows alongside SuperDogs, the Flowrider Splash Zone alongside butter sculptures. True, we crave ever-more thrilling rides and Krispy Kreme-ier burgers (this year's heart-attack special: a 2,000-calorie bacon funnel cake). And you've come down from the heady days when attendance would be higher than the city's actual population, with people travelling from across Ontario, Canada and even the U.S. to visit you.

Still, with an annual attendance of around one million, you remain one of Toronto's last bastions of shared, in-person experiences and, as these readers' anecdotes attest, a staple of summer memories.

To paraphrase Mr. MacNevin, it's hard to imagine Toronto without you.

*********

Gina Clark

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Back in the late 1950s, my girlfriends and I always headed to the Food Building where, unlike now, free samples and 5 cent chocolate bars were the norm. If you printed your name and address on a label, the Wrigley Gum Company later mailed you three free sticks of gum – Juicy Fruit, Doublemint and probably Spearmint. Well, we went to town filling in those labels on multiple trips to the Food Building and to the Ex. Day after day, those sticks of gum came sailing through our mailbox, enough to last most of the following school term.

Rebecca Biason

My favourite memory of the CNE would have to be the moment when I was told I was finally tall enough to ride the Loop de Loop roller coaster in the midway. I was saddened that I could no longer ride the infamous dragon roller coaster on the kiddie midway, but all was forgiven once they strapped me into the seat and I watched the world fall away as we chugged up that steep incline.

Katie

Each year, hypnotist Mike Mandel puts on what I heard was a fantastic show so I stopped by the stage at the time of his performance and when asked for volunteers, my friends egged me on to go up on stage. Little did I know, once the hypnotism began, I soon became the star of the show. I fell asleep immediately and I did everything he said to do... When it came time to look into the audience and spot a celebrity, my Hockey-Night-In-Canada-obsessed self freaked out over spotting Don Cherry in a fabulous suit! I ran up to him, gave him a hug, jumped up and down, and told him I loved his outfit. I found out at the end of the show that the Don Cherry I had spotted had actually been a seven-year-old girl – she was confused to say the least.

Tyler Kekewich

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In 1984, my then-three-year old brother Jordan was rescued from certain death at the feet of a team of Clydesdale horses ...

My mom screamed as she saw my brother toddling straight into the path of the hard-charging, giant-hoofed animals! A cool (in a Don Johnson/Miami Vice sort of way), sunglasses-clad guy who was about the same age I am now heard my mom, saw my brother and jumped into action. In what seemed like a single motion, he ran out, swiftly scooped Jordan out of harm's way and returned him to my grateful mother without saying a word!

Greatest rescue since Superman at Niagara Falls.

Jill Priest

I always enjoyed attending the Ex as a child with my family, looking on with envy at the "older" couples, probably no more than teenagers, who held hands, went on rides together, and won stuffed animals at the midway games. I dreamed of the day I would finally have a boyfriend to share the same experiences.

As I got older and my friends started getting married and having families of their own, I reluctantly started attending the Ex alone. As a 39-year-old single woman, I had accepted the fact that I would probably never get married – and I was okay with that. Little did I know what surprises my 40th year had in store for me.

Last year, on August 23, at 10:00 in the morning, my husband and I said our vows to one another in front of the Japanese Temple Bell at Ontario Place. His 15-year-old son served as best man, and his 13-year-old daughter was my maid of honour.

After the ceremony, we changed out of our wedding attire and into matching family shirts that we had made just for the occasion. With that, we headed across the bridge and spent our wedding day – the day of us becoming a new family – walking hand-in-hand, going on rides, and eating carnival food.

This year, we are celebrating our first anniversary as a married couple – with our kids – at the CNE. It's a family tradition we plan to keep.

Roy

The Better Living Centre used to have staff who pretended to be mannequins and didn't blink. As a child it was both scary and fascinating.

John Richardson

The Burlington baseball travel team I played on in the early 60s participated in the Peewee baseball tournament, a tourney that's still a CNE tradition.

Besides getting to play ball two or three days in a row, we had time between games to walk around the midway, hit the Food Building and being 13-year-old boys, gawk at the girls. For some we thought our baseball uniforms made us chick magnets.

As far as baseball goes, we made it to the semi finals one year. But the absolute best part was hearing your name called over the PA system when you came to bat.

JP Boutros

For me it was the Alpine Way cable car, with those cages to keep you in and the Dominion logos on them. It was SO HIGH for a kid to go, pointing out the cotton candy stand you wished you could just jump out and get to there and then. Can't remember how many tickets each ride cost but most of ours went there.

Seeing 1050 CHUM radio broadcast live was also fun. We listened to it growing up, so to see the announcers as you listened on your Walkman was almost surreal.

A memory, thought not a "favourite," is that Conklin clown logo with the plus signs as eyes. Tim Burton flicks couldn't have scared me more as a little kid.

Dave Ranson

The Flyer, without a doubt.

Every year, my Dad and I would make a point of riding the Flyer. He remembered riding it from his younger days; and for me, as a child, it was the high point of our family's annual visit to the Ex. The long climb up that first hill, the ratchets clicking; and then that first plunge – and the bravest folks not holding on until we hit the turn. And then up and down, almost flying out of my seat. I was a child and I screamed; but my Dad only laughed. Among the happiest memories I have of are the times my Dad and I rode the Flyer at the Ex together.

Mom refused to ride it. As far as I know, she never did. She claimed that it was too scary for her. Or was it? Because when the Flyer train we were on pulled out of the loading area and went around that first simple flat turn prior to climbing the big hill, we'd look to the right, and there would be Mom, playing Crown and Anchor on the midway. Dad and I would laugh, but we kept Mom's secret. If playing Crown and Anchor for quarters while we were on the roller-coaster was Mom's secret little midway thrill, who were we to complain? We were riding the Flyer!

We only made one visit to the Ex a year; but gosh, it was something our family looked forward to all year long.

Rich Walter

Blowing through all my summer job money on the midway. Keeping a dime in my shoe so I could call home for a ride.

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More

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