Author shares memories, mementos of the CNE in Fenelon

By Ian McKechnie

With spring in full swing and April’s showers heralding May’s flowers, the end of summer is probably the farthest thing from most of our minds. For those who can’t wait, one of Ontario’s longtime end-of-summer traditions will be the focus of an upcoming presentation at Fenelon Falls United Church on Tuesday May 14 when author Lee Shimano shares with the Fenelon Falls United Church Women and friends her memories and mementos of the Canadian National Exhibition.

Marking its 140th anniversary in 2019, the CNE is the country’s largest annual fair with a dizzying array of gastronomical concoctions, midway attractions, concerts, and exhibitors. No matter one’s age or home community, it seems that just about everyone has a tale to tell about their CNE experience. For the thousands of people who throng the Princes’ Gates and other points of entry to the CNE, this 18-day extravaganza can be a lot of fun. For the many exhibitors who set up shop in the sprawling facilities of Exhibition Place, the CNE means long hours on one’s feet after months of planning.

I speak from experience.

Four years ago, in 2015, the Victoria County Historical Society set up its federally-funded First World War Comes To Life exhibit in one of the vast halls of the Enercare Centre, with yours truly being one of six costumed interpreters on duty during one of up to three eight-hour shifts over the course of the two weeks.

So busy were we in answering questions, posing for pictures with the public, and ensuring that the exhibit was kept safe and secure that we scarcely had time to take in a concert or sample some of the CNE’s famous (or infamous!) deep-fried confections.

More memorable to my colleagues and I was the odd late-night trek across the midway to a bonfire at Fort York, and the strains of Uptown Funk as performed by the Band of the Royal Regiment of Canada.  The 2015 edition of the CNE is long past, yet it’s these seemingly trivial memories that stand out in my mind to this day. I can still smell the greasy, tomato-topped hamburgers I had for many a supper, and see the crowds pouring through the gates with tacky trinkets in hand.

Such is the approach Shimano takes when documenting the history and heritage of the CNE. Her book, Treasures of the CNE: Memorabilia and Tales from the Canadian National Exhibition, is not a comprehensive historical account of the fair, but rather a mix of tales and images that convey something of the CNE experience.

“I was inspired to write about the CNE primarily to honour of my life-long passion for the Fair,” she says. “As a family it was an important tradition, right up there with Christmas, birthdays, and Easter. At one point in my early childhood we lived within walking distance to the Ex. This afforded us the opportunity to attend the Fair often and to enjoy the atmosphere and excitement just walking through our community.”

It’s an experience Shimano hopes to pass on to others through public presentations like that she will be giving in Fenelon Falls. “Toronto is very fortunate to have a world-class Fair,” she remarks. “The Exhibition is not what it used to be, but, it’s rich history can be enjoyed by preserving and sharing memories. I think it is vital to pass on the interesting and important events that have been part of the Canadian National Exhibition since it’s inception in 1879.  And, it’s a lot of fun!”

Those thirsting for a sweet spring foretaste of the festal joy one typically associates with the CNE past and present are welcome to join the Fenelon Falls UCW on Tuesday May 14 at 2 pm. Admission is $10 per person, with $2 off admission for those who wish to bring CNE mementos of their own to share. Door prizes, book signings, and some special CNE snacks will round out the afternoon.

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