Whatever happened to the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition?

by Bruce Cherney

A year earlier the throng of people gathered at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition grounds had been disappointed, but the next year they were thrilled to witness a first-of-its-kind feat in their city.

“Does it always blow like this here?” asked Frank T. Coffyn, on July 12, 1911, as he prepared his Wright Brothers “aeroplane” for a flight the following day. What we now call airplanes were then referred to as aeroplanes.

According to a Winnipeg Free Press report, concerned organizers of the exhibition asked Coffyn if the wind would affect his attempt.

“Oh, no,” he replied. “It is, of course, safer without the wind; but your wind here seems to be steady and there is not so much risk.”

Apparently the risk was greater on July 15, 1910, when American pilot Eugene Ely attempted to become the first person to accomplish sustained flight over Winnipeg in his Curtiss four-cylinder bi-plane. During Ely’s two attempts, his aeroplane was buffeted by 48-km/h (30-mph) winds and failed to gain altitude. On his first attempt, his aeroplane barely got off the ground and on his second and last attempt, his aeroplane crashed. Ely walked away unhurt, but called off his scheduled flights for the rest of the week.

On October 19, 1911, Ely would not be as lucky and was killed when his aeroplane crashed at Macon, Georgia, during another fairground exhibition. Early aviation was extremely dangerous. In 1911, 55 aviators lost their lives in crashes.

Almost to the day a year later, the curious flocked to view Coffyn’s heavier-than-air flying machine as its components were removed from crates brought to the exhibition via rail from Troy, New York. His two-seat bi-plane was a flimsy affair by today’s standards, possessing a body and wings made of spruce wood and sail cloth held together by thread, wire and glue. 

“Coffyn has made himself a name all over the continent as the steadiest of the bird men — witness the fact that last month at Detroit he carried in three days as many as 45 passengers, twelve of them ladies,” wrote the Free Press reporter.

Coffyn was one of six aviators who made up the Wright exhibition team. They were early barnstormers,  travelling to fairgrounds across Canada and the United States to awe audiences by demonstrating their prowess at the controls of aeroplanes.

His first appearance in Canada was a year earlier in Montreal — his second public appearance anywhere, his first was at Indianapolis — where he made a flight every day for a week.

“I have learnt a good deal about flying since that time,” the pioneer aviator laughingly told the Free Press reporter.

His first flight that evening went off without a hitch and was noted as a “splendid display” as he weaved through the sky performing “steep dives at low altitude.” Throughout the week of the exhibition, Coffyn defied gravity in his heavier-than-air flying machine.

A noted feat was a race between his aircraft, a motorcycle and an automobile. Coffyn won the race, although only by about 18 metres.

W.C. Power, an employee of  McLaughlin-Buick of Canada, earned the distinction of being the first aeroplane passenger in Western Canada when he was taken aloft by Coffyn.

The marvel of powered flight had overtaken the community to such an extent that Coffyn was offered $1,000 by the T. Eaton Company if he would fly his aeroplane cross-country to Portage la Prairie to establish a Canadian long-distance record. The Wright Brothers company declined the offer, saying not enough money was being offered to make the attempt worthwhile. 

Because of its novelty, the magic of flight enthralled audiences across North America and the world. When Coffyn took off in his aeroplane at the exhibition grounds in 1911, it had only been eight years since Orville and Wilbur Wright had been the first to take to the air at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There were relatively few aeroplanes being produced, which meant that heavy-than-air flight was still a mysterious phenomenon to the vast majority of people across the globe.

The public’s enthusiasm for  aviation led to headlines splashed across newspaper front pages announcing each powered-flight record. Aviators became the pop culture stars of the era and were worshiped as heroes for their death-defying deeds.

It was because of their unique status that aviators such as Coffyn attracted thousands of people whenever they made a public appearance.

The manifesto of the annual Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, published in 1905, said “it is necessary to amuse as well as instruct, to provide for the lighter side of man’s nature as well as to stress the serious and business side, (so) the board has always furnished and will continue to do so, feature exhibits to attract attention.”

From its beginning in 1891, the exhibition brought in the newest mechanical wonders to titillate the public, starting with bicycle races and progressing to steam-driven tractors, airships, automobiles and then aeroplanes. Although billed as an industrial exhibition, there were always typical fairground exhibits such as baby shows, vaudeville acts, acrobats, elephants, lions, horse races and sports events, besides the industrial, livestock, horticultural and mineral displays meant to show to the world the progress being made in Winnipeg and Manitoba.

The very first exhibition from September 28 to October 3, 1891 (exhibitions soon increased to week-long and then 10-day events) billed itself as “Manitoba’s Greatest Fair,” and promised special attractions that would increase day-by-day and “provide for the entire exhibition endless entertainment,  instruction and amusement.”

From the beginning, the plan was to create the biggest and best exhibition in Canada.

“The exhibition is not confined to the province of Manitoba,” said president G.H. Greig at the opening ceremonies of the 1906 exhibition, “competition is open to all the western provinces and in most cases the world.” 

By the beginning of 1900, the exhibition was advertised as “Western Canada’s Great 20th Century Fair.”

The very existence of the exhibition is not well-known today, nor is it common knowledge that a site and special buildings had been specifically dedicated to hosting the annual event. The grounds were immediately north of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Weston Yards, between McPhillips and Sinclair streets and Jarvis and Selkirk avenues. The former grounds have long since been abandoned and the grandstand and other buildings demolished. A large section of the former grounds now serves as recreational space.

The annual exhibition arose out of a tradition of world fairs that started with the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, London, England, in 1851. The Victorian-era fairs were designed to showcase the marvels of “modern” technology and the continual advances made by the so-called civilized world.

As early as 1882, Winnipeg was considering establishing a “great fair,” but lacked the necessary funding and could not get Ottawa to cede land for a fairground with the capacity to hold horse races. Until a grounds was built, Main Street remained the city’s horse-racing track. The year 1882 also marked the first appearance of horse-drawn streetcars in Winnipeg. When a horse race was about to begin, the streetcars were halted and the passengers became enthusiastic spectators.

By 1890, a sustained effort was being made to host an annual exhibition. On February 18, a meeting chaired by Mayor Alfred Pearson was called to discuss the proposal.

The resolution passed at the meeting read: “That it is desirable to hold an annual agricultural and industrial exhibition in Winnipeg.” To this end, it was expected that the provincial and federal governments would help fund the new grounds. Meanwhile, the CPR took up the cause and offered to reduce its passenger rate for those wanting to attend as well as provide free freight for exhibitions (livestock, etc.)

In 1890, the first capital proposal put to Winnipeg ratepayers in a referendum was rejected, but a year later there was a change of heart and $30,000 was approved. Seventy-five acres at the west end of Dufferin were then purchased from Ottawa and soon buildings for the exhibition were under construction.

Alex MacDonald was made president of the exhibition and C.N. Bell was appointed secretary. The provincial government provided $7,500 in prize money which eventually totalled $13,500.

In 1891, MacDonald announced that there were 4,000 exhibits entered from as far away as B.C. and Ontario. Among the livestock entries were 411 horses, 185 cattle, 88 sheep, 47 pigs and 203 poultry. Other agricultural entries included grain, vegetables, plants, honey, meats, and leather goods. Later, butter-making contests would become a well-attended feature of the exhibition. Contests were also held for ladies’ work, fine arts, natural history, school work, manufacturers, dogs and babies.

“There was a class for almost any product that a Manitoban felt an urge to display,” wrote Grant MacEwan, in his 1950 book, Agriculture on Parade: The Story of the Fairs and Exhibitions of Western Canada. “And entertainment was provided to meet every taste; racing, lacrosse and baseball every afternoon, and band competitions, platform attractions and fireworks every night.”

In subsequent years, competition for entries and attractions increased as other Western Canada communities entered the exhibition field. Beginning in 1897, Brandon started to overtake Winnipeg as host of an agricultural fair (a winter fair was later added), while Regina with its Territorial Exhibition showed Winnipeg that it had to become more aggressive in providing more prize money if it wanted to stay in the fair business.

A bylaw to loan the exhibition $30,000 to be repaid over 30 years was submitted to the ratepayers of the city on April 23, 1896, and  passed. 

A day after the vote, an editorial in the Daily Nor’Wester said inclement weather helped keep many away from the polls, but praised the result — out of 610 votes cast, 426 or 70 per cent marked their ballots in favour of the loan. 

The editorial writer said, “... the matter is happily over, and Winnipeg may confidently expect that the increased and improved accommodations at the exhibition grounds this year, will result in better attendance during the week of the exhibition, and increase the number of exhibitions and attractions.

It was a prophetic statement, since better facilities resulted in increased attendance — 40,000 went through the gates in 1896 — and a tidy profit. When Winnipeg hosted the Dominion (Canadian) Exhibition in 1904 and offered $100,000 in prize money, attendance soared to 210,000.

“Those who have not yet visited the exhibition grounds this year will be agreeably surprised when they do visit and see for themselves the many improvements,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on July 21, 1896. “New buildings have been erected; old ones enlarged; sidewalks have been laid all over the grounds. In a word everything has been done to make the surroundings attractive and convenient.”

The exhibition was such an integral part of city life, that a half-day civic holiday was declared for Thursday, July 26, 1896, by Mayor Richard William Jameson. This was a tradition that carried on throughout the history of the fair and always occurred on Citizens’ Day.

Attendance was further helped by by the appearance of electric streetcars. Since 1892, the Winnipeg Street Railway had been running cars from city hall to the exhibition grounds and its Sinclair Street entrance. By 1912, another route was made possible by the new CPR underpass on McPhillips Street.

“During the busy afternoon period, cars would travel every four minutes from Fort Rouge over the Maryland Bridge, down Sherbrook to Logan and west to McPhillips, and then north to deposit passengers at the west gate of the grounds,” wrote Jim Blanchard in his recent book Winnipeg 1912 (University of Manitoba Press, 2005). “People living in the west end were encouraged to take this route to avoid the congestion on Dufferin and Selkirk.”

The popularity of the exhibition was helped by the influx of people from rural Manitoba and from across the border. People from towns throughout Manitoba flooded into the city on special daily trains arranged by the railways. For example, the train back to Teulon, which normally departed the city at 5:40 p.m., was delayed until 11 p.m. so that people could take in the evening attractions.

On July 14, 1899, it was reported in the Morning Telegram that the four Northern Pacific trains brought nearly 7,000 Americans “over the line” for the “glorious climax.”

Each day of the exhibition was designated special for a specific group; for example, there was a Citizens’ Day, Children’s Day, American Day, Ladies’ Day, Press day, Manufacturers’ Day, Farmers’ Day, Old Timers’ Day and Commercial Travellers’ Day. 

On Children's’ Day, admissions were cut in half to five-cents for youngsters. 

While exotic acts such as “King Jumbo,” the African boa constrictor, and the giantess from Missouri, were popular among children, they were also extremely fond of horses, cattle and other farm animals on display — they felt they were in the midst of one enormous petting zoo. They petted thoroughbred racers from the morning ’till night, looked in awe at the mighty Percherons and Clydesdales, and poked at lazy hens in the poultry house.

On American Day on July 14, 1899, according to the Morning Telegram, “The welcome accorded the subjects of Uncle Sam by this city was a most cordial one and the city and citizens were decorated profusely with the Stars and Stripes.”

Among the thousands from south of the border were bands from Crookston, Grafton and Grand Forks. 

“The exhibition directors could not have made a wiser move than thus set apart a day for our American cousins, and the Americans showed they highly appreciated the move by turning out in such overwhelming numbers ...

“Shortly after eleven o’clock the first special train of sixteen coaches ... pulled into the station. This train contained passengers from Grand Forks and Grafton only and had on board over 750 persons ... Shortly after there pulled into the station a train (from Cashell and international points between there and Winnipeg) of eleven coaches containing 1,000 passengers.”

It was estimated that over 3,500 Americans came to Winnipeg, a third more than in the previous year.

The special shows brought people to the exhibition in droves, especially the daredevils. On July 21, 1903, a special feature was “Schreyer’s sensational dive.” 

“It takes great nerve even to watch Schreyer’s great dive which is one of the most sensational acts ever performed in public,” according to a Morning Telegram report. Schreyer “descends a 500 foot chute at lightning speed and takes a flying dive of 35 feet from his wheel across 85 feet of platform into the tank of  water only three feet deep.

“At last the breathless moment has arrived, and the tall spectral chute which has been dimly outlined against the western sky springs into fiery existence.” The summit, from where he took his “fateful leap,” was marked by two red lamps.

“Schreyer leaves his wheel in a mighty dive, with hands over his head into the tank of water ... Just another seconds suspense and he scrambles out dripping wet, but quite safe and unharmed.”

While Coffyn may have made the first heavy-than-air flight in Winnipeg in 1911, one of the earlier special features was Augustus Roy Knabenshue and his airship. On Citizens’ Day on July 26, 1906, a record 42,000 people turned out to see the ascent of the lighter-than-air machine, a new marvel of the age.

“The ascension of Knabenshue and his airship was a spectacular feature of the early evening,” reported the Morning Telegram. “The daring aeronaut sailed from his mooring place on the grounds, to the centre of the oval enclosed by the race course. In descending, the propeller, which is at the front of the big machine, struck the ground, and one of the blades crumpled up. A new blade was put on, and in about an hour’s time the return journey was made. This skipper of the clouds, appears to have perfect control of his flying machine, which gracefully sped about in various directions, turning, rising and dipping easily and quickly as directed by the rudder.”

Knabenshue made twice-daily ascents in his airships, one in the morning and another in the evening, during the exhibition. He later oversaw the Wright Brothers Exhibition team, which included Coffyn.

A popular attraction for years was Ferrari Bros.’ Shows United with its “famous trained wild animals, featuring 200 lions, jaguars, leopards, etc., according to a July 24, 1905, advertisement. 

“Princess Pauline,” of the Ferrari Bros,’ show, was a “dauntless lion-tamer, who wore “a jaunty little pince-nez, and is armed with a whip and a revolver.” The princess ruled the caged pumas and jaguars, “the great snarling cats being no means amiable under the lash.”

In 1906, the Kadfman troupe of six cyclists, four of which were ladies, was called a “rare hit” on Children’s Day, said the Morning Telegram. “(They) have an act which is simply unexcelled, one of the turns consisting of five of the performers riding in unison with the machines reared up on their hind wheels.”

The Paddy Brothers, another act in 1906, wooed the crowd with their acrobatic prowess that included an upside down brother placing himself on his brother’s head for about five minutes. The upside-down brother played the lute,  followed by the two brothers playing a violin duet, “a difficult juggling feat in which the upper one keeps three balls in the air at once and his brother does the same with clubs, and (consuming) a light meal consisting of both food and drink.”

Attractions at the show were so popular that spectators tried to obtain any vantage point that would provide themselves with an unobstructed view. Around 6 p.m. on August 3, 1904, about 200 men and boys climbed up on the roof of the rear section of a cattle stable No. 3, one of a collection of buildings behind the colonnade, to avoid paying admission and get a good view of Neromus, the “Bull Wrestler,” do battle with a hoofed beast. Unfortunately, their combined weight caused the building to collapse.

“A squad of police gathered instantly, and established order in front of the wreck, where people were struggling to free themselves from the tangled mass of humanity,” reported the Morning Telegram. “It happened so quickly that no one who went with it had time to realize what was happening. The two sides went down together, and overlapped when they struck the railings inside the building, inverting the roof and forming a huge vat for the reception of the victims.”

A few of the people in the stable passageway were knocked down, though none were seriously injured. Cattle in the stable were trapped for a time but escaped major injury.

Prompt medical attention was given to the estimated 27 injured, 18 of whom were taken to the General Hospital tent on the exhibition grounds. The list of injuries included broken arms, ribs and legs, as well as sprains, cuts and bruises.

Racehorse owner Alva Boynston, 31, from Tacoma, Washington, sustained head injuries. As the only seriously injured person, he was taken by ambulance to St. Boniface Hospital for treatment.

The uninjured were sent home in cabs. 

The newspaper said the police were unable to control the people taking to the roofs because they were “taxed to their utmost.” Still, the police had issued numerous warnings about the danger and tried on numerous occasions to shoo the people off the roofs.

Besides hundreds trying to avoid paying admission or climbing onto roofs, police were kept busy keeping track of the many pickpockets and con artists circulating among the crowd, crooked sideshows and gamblers.

One of the strangest cases occurred on July 23, 1896, and involved the exhibition of an ossified body. George McPherrin and George M. Holmes were arrested after Detective Munro received a tip from Antoine Lacount, a Grand Forks resident originally from Winnipeg, that the remains were of his father. 

In 1838, Lacount and his father were on their way to Minnesota with a “party of traffickers” when they became separated. For an unknown reason, one of the party picked up a gun and shot his father who was then wrapped up in blankets and buried. Lacount said not much thought was given to his father’s remains until they were disinterred by a Minnesota farmer digging a ditch on his property. The farmer sold the unknown stone-like corpse to an employee. 

Lacount heard about the corpse, investigated and from a description given to him believed they were the remains of his father. He followed the two showmen to Winnipeg to confirm his suspicions. At the exhibition, he recognized the features of his deceased father in the “stony remains.” He then reported the showmen to the proper authorities which resulted in Munro arresting the two Americans.

On July 16, 1912, detectives descended upon the exhibition grounds to arrest suspicious characters from “across the line,” loitering in the racetrack betting area at the northeast corner of the stands.

The Free Press reported  that “betters and bookies were doing a flourishing business, when three detectives suddenly entered and rounded up the five men who were crowding around the bookmakers’ stand with bundles of the long green in their hands.”

The men were accused of being pickpockets and engaging in other nefarious practices.

In 1912, city comptroller W.H. Evanson noticed that there was a discrepancy between money taken in and the number of tickets sold. Ticket sellers were placed under surveilance and some were seen pocketing tickets that were passed to accomplices and resold with the money split between them. Three ticket sellers were arrested and thrown into jail. 

A setback for the exhibition occurred in 1911 when the grandstand burnt to the ground one week before Coffyn’s epic-making flight. But, the exhibition board confidently announced that within seven days a new grandstand would be built. They were true to their word and the exhibition opened on schedule.

Despite the enthusiastic efforts of the  board and renaming it with the lofty title of the Canadian Industrial Exhibition, there were troubling signs that all was not well. It was losing money — $31,792 in 1908; $1,486 in 1909; $12,360 in 1910 and $8,783 in 1912 — despite increasing attendance. The bank debt stood at $67,000 in 1912. 

It was reported that staging the exhibition had by then cost the city about $253,000 for capital improvements and $142,000 in maintenance costs.

A problem throughout the exhibition’s history was its failure to obtain funding from the federal government. Historians tend to emphasize this as a major contributor to the exhibition’s downfall.

Furthermore, not everyone wanted to keep the exhibition at its location on the “wrong side” of the railway tracks. For years, there had been a movement to relocate the exhibition to Kildonan Park.

Actually, Winnipeg’s movers-and-shakers were divided on the future of the exhibition, especially those serving on city council. 

In 1912, E.L. Drewery, the head of the city’s parks board, successfully argued that the exhibition should be relocated to Kildonan Park. As a result, the city passed a bylaw in favour of the relocation. In a subsequent referendum, a majority of Winnipeggers agreed with city council’s proposal.

The old exhibition grounds were given a temporary reprieve when a depression made it impossible to fund the relocation. Still, the threat of relocation and the need for more funding for the change of venue added to the crisis the exhibition was fated to soon encounter.

“Members of the city council are the exhibition’s worst enemies ...,” said an editorial in the August 27, 1913, Farmer’s Advocate. “Winnipeg city fathers and the citizens as a whole must get behind this exhibition. The several thousands of dollars of debt must be wiped off and the new grounds must be put into shape without further delay or quibbling. If the council never voted money for less worthy purposes they need have no regrets. In what way could cash be spent to better advantage than in making Winnipeg’s annual exhibition as good as Canada’s best?”

But, the days of the exhibition were numbered. A year after the editorial appeared, Winnipeggers in a referendum voted against providing more funding for the exhibition.

In 1914, over 60,000 people a day came through the gates — that meant total attendance over the 10-day exhibition was 600,000. By all accounts, it was an extremely successful exhibition, but the city’s last.

The Farmer’s  Advocate on February 3, 1915, called the failure to fund the exhibition a “shortsighted policy of abandonment,” because it affected the province’s livestock industry and the city’s strong link with the agricultural community.

Over the years, there were other attempts to revive the exhibition, but they were unsuccessful.

In 1952, the Red River Exhibition came into existence with some of the same goals as the former Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition. Although it bills itself as a “showcase (for) the talents, abilities and accomplishments of Manitobans” and has some of the elements of the former exhibition, the “Ex” is still primarily noted for its entertainment venues and rides. 

On the other hand, the Winnipeg Industrial Exhbition always emphasized its  role as an industrial and agricultural fair, despite featuring other “star” attractions. 

Surprisingly, the former exhibition in its heyday attracted more people than today’s Ex. This year, 170,000 people came to the Red River Exhibition. By 1904, crowds at the old exhibition had surpassed 200,000 people — Manitoba’s population in 1904 was estimated at only 330,000 people, while today’s population is nearly 1.2-million people. 

One thing the two exhibitions have in common is their location at a dedicated site.The modern exhibition is located on 90  of 480 acres of land owned by the Red River Exhibition Association just west of Assiniboia Downs.