We have known the CNE at the exhibition grounds along the lakeshore west of Bathurst Street for so long that we tend to think of it as having always been there. In early days until 1878, it wandered around the province. There was a “Cattle Show” held in the Town of York in 1820 and the first Fair, organized by the “Provincial Agricultural Association and Board of Agriculture for Canada West”, was held October 21, 1846, on the Government House Grounds, at King and Simcoe Streets. This association was responsible for the annual provincial fairs which were held in a different Ontario city each year. This included: Cobourg, Kingston, Niagara, Brockville, Toronto, Hamilton, London and Brantford. In September 1852, the Fair returned to Toronto and was held on the west side of University Avenue south of College Street along the Taddle.
In September 1852, the Fair was in Toronto on the west side of University) Avenue, from a bit north of Dundas Street to a bit south of College Street. It lasted four days. The Horse Park, on the west side of the grounds, was loaned to the Fair by Mrs. Boulton, who lived in the Grange and it was bounded on the north by the Caer Howell Pleasure Grounds (in a way a forerunner of the midway). The Fair was a success, attracting more than 30,000 visitors. Woodcuts of the period show several tents and three fairly substantial, but temporary, wooden exhibit buildings. The Press found shortcomings in the Fair, particularly in accommodation for the exhibits and the large crowd, saying that “the halls were altogether too small and were not of the best construction to accommodate a crowd. The crowds of people which passed into them on the great public days of the show were always disappointed as they got little more than a glimpse of the various articles exhibited as they were borne along half stifled through the narrow passages.
The exhibitors too were often grievously disappointed, some of them at having their productions disposed beyond the line of vision, others with having their more delicate handiwork destroyed by the rain pouring through the leaking structure”. The newspaper suggested that the time was fast coming when a permanent site should be found, but little came of it, for the Fair continued to travel.
The 1878 exposition was an important one for Toronto. Besides being the last one to be held by the Provincial Agricultural Association, but its success gave impetus to the establishment of a permanent Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The 1877 Toronto City Council realizing the value of the Exhibition to the city and the need for more appropriate land for a permanent home in Toronto, leased the western part of the Garrison Reserve in April 1878. This land is still part of the present Exhibition Place. This site and the promise of better buildings helped secure the 1878 Exhibition for Toronto. This was the most successful yet with ample well situated grounds and several permanent buildings, including the Crystal Palace which had been moved from its former location on the north side of King near Shaw.
For more information about the CNE we suggest “Once upon a century: 100 year history of the ‘EX’.” by J. H. Robinson, J. H. Robinson Pub. Ltd., 1978. or go to these websites: CNE History Virtual Tour of CNE