August 10, 2014

A vintage photo filled look at the history of the PNE

A few days ago we shone the spotlight on the wonderful square dancing that is an integral part of Penticton's annual Peach Festival, and today, I'd like to chat about another fantastic British Columbia event. This one is both significantly larger and arguably far better known than our town’s peach centered celebration: The Pacific National Exhibition, better known to British Columbia locals as the PNE.

Marking and ushering in the second half of August for decades now, the first Pacific National Exhibition was held during the heyday of the Edwardian era back in 1910. It was opened by none other than Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (who image graces the $5.00 Canadian bank note) and was a hit with locals and others from throughout the province and elsewhere along the Pacific coast from the very get-go.

So what is the The Pacific National Exhibition you may be asking, especially if you've never heard of it before. Good question! The PNE is actually the name of both the multi-day event and the non-profit organization runs that an annual seventeen day summer fair each August. This exciting event features live performances from musicians and other entertaining acts, tons of great food, various exhibits that cover such things as art, agriculture, and technology, amongst others; a huge home show, a nightly fireworks show, the Pacific Spirit Horse Show, and the pièce de résistance for many, especially the young and young at hear, who attend, a massive seasonal amusement park (the biggest in the province and one of the largest anywhere in Canada).

From day one, the PNE, which has always been held at Hastings Park in Vancouver, has been the largest annual ticked event in British Columbia, today drawing in more than 900,000 visitors (which is all the more impressive when you stop and consider that B.C.'s entire population is some 4.4 million people) and stands as a great way for locals and tourists alike to wrap up summer (for all intents - this being Canada after all) on an incredibly fun note.

As a youngster, my family lived in B.C.'s Lower Mainland area, so at least one trip to the PNE was a highly anticipated occurrence each year. I can still picture those early days at the fair with crystal clarity. There was face painting, petting zoos, the ever present (and incredibly enticing) scent of fried onions and cotton candy, the squeals and screams of folks seated on the more fast paced rides, the sizzling heat of the late August air, the feel of the powerfully thick layer of sunscreen my mom would coat our young skins in, and the incredible thrill of both jumping on the rides themselves and also simply being a part of the huge, happy PNE going crowd.

In the years since my family moved further north in the province to the Okanagan, and I myself have lived both elsewhere in B.C. and the country alike, I've not made it to the PNE many times. I don't think it will happen this year either (the last time I was there would probably have been when I was 13 or 14 years old), so to help quell some of the longing I'm feeling to attend (this year's PNE will kick off on August 16th), I thought it would be plenty of fun in its own right to take a virtual trip there with all of you, my dear online friends, via some delightful vintage PNE photographs.

Strap in (to your roller coaster seat), grab a corn dog, pull up a folding chair under the firework illuminated night sky, and come along as we photo hop our way through some of the exciting events and early to mid-twentieth century history that have helped make the Pacific National Exhibition the wondrous annual shindig that it is today - and always has been.

{Extra! Extra! Read all about it! An ad from 1910 for the inaugural PNE, which at the time was called the Vancouver Exhibition, as it appeared in a local paper. Admission to the fair was $0.50, a price that would, rather impressively, remain in place all the way until the 1960s.}

{Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier seated in a Napier car in front of the CPR Station on August 16, 1910, the after day he opened the first ever PNE at Hastings Park in Vancouver.}

{An early, undated photo showing a musical performance being given at the Canada Pacific Exhibit at the PNE. Over the decades, the PNE has played host to some of the most talented musicians in the world, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Tom Jones and Stevie Wonder, amongst many others, and continues to headline hugely popular acts every year.}

{A circa 1920s group of 4-H club members showing off their calves at the PNE. Live animal events and competitions have been a big part of the PNE since its earliest days and remain so even now during the technology fuelled days of the 21st century.}

{Two of the most popular rides at the PNE during its earliest decades, the Giant Dipper seen here on the left and Shoot-the-Chutes log ride on the right captured here during the roaring twenties.}

{A photo from 1929 of the entrance gate to both the Vancouver Exhibition, later renamed the Pacific National Exhibition, and the amusement park Happyland, which was a predecessor to today's Playland, which resides on the grounds all year round and is open from May until September.}

{Three bathing suit clad 1920s beauties atop a very large cow named Bossie, with a fourth standing to the right, at the PNE. Then, as now, agriculture, farming, and animals have always been an important part of the exhibition.}

{Children and adults alike gathered to watch this fun outdoor puppet show in 1930. The fair has always made sure to involve children and provide numerous rides, events, and other activities catered specifically to them.}

{An exhilarating (or stomach churning, if lofty rides like this aren't your cup of tea) 1932 view from the top of the Giant Dipper, one of the first amusement rides to built on the PNE grounds. It is said to have a drop that may have been as high as 90 feet and he ability to reach a top speed of 58 miles per hour. Like many early PNE rides, the Giant Dipper no longer exists, as it was torn down in 1947.}

{The first in a longstanding line of show homes that was built for, and raffled off during, the PNE. This tradition, which began with the lovely 1934 home seen here (which was valued at $5,000 - a very substantial sum during the Great Depression), still continues and is a big draw for many who attend the fair.}

{A shot of the crowd making their way down the PNE's midway, circa 1936. Unlike many other things around Vancouver during the challenging years of the Great Depression, the PNE not only survived, but thrived, as people flocked to the fair to escape their troubles and enjoy some good, old-fashioned fun at a reasonable price.}

{Hungry fair goes make their way to food pavilion building in 1939 to find just the right special treat to quell their rumbling stomachs. A wide array of delicious food has been always been one of the PNE's biggest stars.}

{The PNE has long served to connect locals with business and products that are relevant to their needs as British Columbians, as this c. 1940s B.C. Telephone Co. both demonstrates.}

{The PNE has always prided itself on being comprised of both educational and informative booths and events, as well as more lighthearted attractions like the amusement rides. In this undated c. early 1940s photo, we see a booth set up to attract fair visitors to join the Canadian Army by promoting the fact that the military would provide education to its members.}

{Over the years the Pacific National Exhibition grounds have seen many buildings come and go, including the impressive looking Manufacturers’ Building shown in this 1942 photo, which was constructed back in 1913.}

{A crowd waiting in line at the main Gate of the Pacific National Exhibition to purchase their tickets back in 1947. The PNE has drawn massive numbers of participants since day one and is a beloved favourite with locals, residents throughout British Columbia, and others from even further afield who travel long distances to experience the almost magical joys of this annual event.}

{A group of young children during the summer of 1949 enjoying the classic merry-go-round that was part of Exhibition Park at the PNE. A similar (to the best of my knowledge, it's not the same one - but if anyone knows otherwise, please tell me) merry-go-round is still one of the most popular rides with youngsters attending the fair to this day.}

{Vendors selling food, products, and services alike have been a mainstay of the PNE since its 1910 inception. Case in point, c. 1940s-1950s photo showing a wonderfully mid-century shaped stall called Percy Tutti Engraving and Gold Lettering both.}

{As with many fairs, big and small alike, the generously sized PNE was quick to include beauty pageant in its earlier days, the winner of which got to wear the coveted title of Miss PNE for a year.}

{Year after the year, the show homes at the PNE, as touched on above, draw in major crowds of hopeful raffle participants who try their luck at winning the modern home of their dreams, just as this crowd did during the 1950s.}

{Another beautiful mid-century Miss PNE winner, this time the sash sporting winner from 1958 (don't you just love her charming summer dress?).}

{A colour photo, the only one in today's post, of just some of the large crowd as seen from Forum building that would have attended the PNE on this sunny day in 1957. This year remains a standout in PNE history because it was one that saw none other than teen heart throb and major rock star Elvis Presley perform to a packed crowd. A legend persists that Elvis got all of one song into his act before a riot broke out, however sources such as the Elvis Information Network claim that such did not in fact happen - as probable as it may seem given Elvis' incredible popularity.}

{Vancouver Sun reporter Joan Healey and PNE amusements manager Dave Dauphinee on the roller coaster at Playland in 1958. Rides of all sizes are unquestionably one of the most enjoyable elements of the Pacific National Exhibition, as well as being a substantial part of its ongoing popularity with visitors of all ages.}

{To learn more about a specific image, please click on it to be taken to its respective source.}

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Save for a four year window between 1942 and 1946 when the PNE was closed and the grounds used as a military training facility, as well, in a very dark chapter of this province's history, as a processing and internment location for Japanese Canadians from across B.C., the PNE has been in continual operation for the past 104 years. In the decades since, the Momiji Gardens (Momiji means maple in Japanese) on the PNE grounds have stood as a powerful and very important reminder of the events that the province's Japanese citizens endured during WW2.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend the PNE, I truly cannot recommend it highly enough (ditto for the similar East Coast event held in Toronto each year called the Canadian National Exhibition, or CNE). Cliché as it may sound, there truly is something there for everyone. While the rides, which are a part of the seasonally operated on sight amusement park called Playland, are a bit part of the PNE, they certainly are not the only element of this fabulous multi-day event in the slightest.

You can catch live music acts, sample amazing world cuisine and fair food alike, go shopping, attend the home show, and myriad other things over the course of the fair's two week span (it wraps up this year on September 1st). And should you be game for the rides, you'll find everything from a peaceful ferris wheel to a wooden roller coaster, the Atmosfear (an areal swing ride that lifts you 218 feet into the sky and then spins you around in a complete 360° at 70 kilometres an hour multiple times) to the Flume, a classic log ride.

The PNE is, and will always, be the epitome of late summer Canadian fun for me, no matter if I'm able to attend each year or not. The mere thought stirs up a plethora of terrific memories and makes me yearn to be knee high to a candy apple stall again.

Or, on second thought, perhaps not - after all, I wasn't tall enough to ride all the rides back then, and that's something I definitely look forward to doing (well, most of them at least) the next time circumstances do permit me to hightail it back to Vancouver for a long overdue reunion with the grand, glorious, and always giddiness inducing Pacific National Exhibition.


  1. I had no idea! Thanks for sharing! The images are stunning! I hope you had a lovely weekend!
    PS: I love to watch the rides but I'm such a chicken to do it!

  2. This is illuminating. We have the Canadian National Exhibition held in Toronto - I went to it last year. I wonder what that has been like historically. You did well to find all of these photoes!

  3. This looks like a fantastic summer's day out. I can't think of an equivalent on that scale we have in the UK. Maybe there is something and I don't know being a country dweller! Obviously we have the open all year round amusement parks which my youngest daughter loves, other than that there are the annual country shows. These are comparatively quiet events (no fun fair), but contain quite a few of the other elements you mention and are a beloved summertime favourite of UK families.

  4. oh wow! what a huge festivity!
    i enjoyed the old pics a lot, loved the youngsters with their cows :-)
    around here the fair season starts too - not big ones of cause, small village festivals about country living, flowers and fruits and ecology....
    the only rides are small ones only for children, i´m much to big for that :-)

  5. I have really enjoyed this wonderful and very thorough post with such great detail and marvelous photos! Very, very interesting and well-done! In the midwest U.S. state fairs are a very big deal and it doesn't feel like summer if I haven't gone to at least one of them--heat, dust, mud, agriculture, the midway, the noise, the food, all of it--just fabulous!

  6. Actually, Holly, there appears to be some sort of parade or celebration (perhaps the wrong word) as the CNE was used as a base camp of sorts around the start of WWI - perhaps Google can explain far better than I ever could ;)

    The PNE looks terrific! Thanks for the post about it, Jessica - some amazing pics you've got here :) And was I the only one that loved using pencil to make Sir Wilfred Laurier look like Spock on the older $5 bills?? It was a small adjustment to his near-profile pic on the bill, but it looked perfect! Drat, now I've admitted to defacing our money...but it was onoly pencil I used, I swear! *lol*

    1. Oh, now that is just to chuckle worthy! :D I didn't know about that Canadian currency hack, but am sure I will think of it each time I see an older $5.00 bill now.

      ♥ Jessica

  7. Yay PNE time! What a wonderful fantastic and lovely post Jessica :) I love this time of the year too and this photos from the PNE are super cool and are now making me super excited for the CNE which also starts this weekend! I loved the photo of the ladies on the cow hehehe too cute. And of course the Miss PNE photos are lovely. How cool it would of been to have that title for a whole year!

    Happy PNE time!

    Liz :)

  8. Wow, that dress on Miss PNE is a stunner! I want one!!! :) Great photos all, thanks for sharing!

    1. My pleasure, dear lady, thank you very much for your lovely comment. I wouldn't say no to that eye-catching frock myself either! :)

      ♥ Jessica

  9. those photos are amazing and wonderful. There is something so summery about all of that! I love our little local fairs (not his as grand as the Pine of course) and I always feel retro there with the vendors and farmer and tractors... Thanks for sharing.

  10. I LOVED this (you know how I adore a good festival with history). The photos are terrific (the bathing beauties on the cow is amazing) and I learned things I didn't know.

    Miss PNE 1954 though...
    (Clucking) "Uh huh, oh yeah, I laid it myself!"

    The resemblance is uncanny.

  11. how interesting! i did not know that canada, as well as america, internet japanese citizens. that was such a horrible time in our country's histories. i'm so thankful that such a occurrence has happened since.

    1. It truly is an appalling chapter in the history of each of our countries. I love my nation fiercely, as most people do of their countries, but I'm certainly not proud of everything that has been conducted on Canadian soil over the years (the camps, Residential Schools, the Head Tax for certain types of immigrants, etc) and am so glad that we quickly developed into a much more forward thinking, accepting and inviting nation after WW2.

      ♥ Jessica

  12. That looks like heaps of fun. It sounds a lot like the Sydney Royal Easter show, which also has a heavy focus on animals and agriculture, alongside rides and food and fireworks!

    I love the women on the cow! Such a cute and quirky photo!

  13. That photo of the bathing beauties on top of the cow made me giggle. What were they thinking? The Big Dipper looks like fun, it made me think how long ago it is since I went on any kind of ride or to an amusement park. I always used to really enjoy them. It was interesting to learn all about this Canadian tradition. I hope it isn't too long until you get to visit it again.