Canadian Lakehead Exhibition: Celebrating the Vibrant History

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The 2022 Canadian Lakehead Exhibition is in full swing.
The 2022 Canadian Lakehead Exhibition is in full swing.

Thunder Bay – Every year, thousands flock to the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition (CLE), the highly anticipated event of Northwestern Ontario. But few may realize the deep historical roots and transformative journey of this iconic celebration. The CLE isn’t just an exhibition; it’s a testament to the evolution and spirit of Thunder Bay and its surrounding regions.

For many the CLE is about the Midway and the rides, the music at the nightly shows, and of course the food.

From August 9-13th, 2023 from noon to midnight the CLE is the focal point for not only Thunder Bay but all of Northern Ontario.

Historical Overview

  • Foundation and Early Intent: The Canadian Lakehead Exhibition, originally known as The West Algoma Agricultural Society, was founded in 1890. This creation was a collaborative effort of D. F. Burk and Burt Burris. The duo envisioned a unique space where rural and urban communities could interact, share ideas, and mutually benefit. From agriculture and livestock to arts and crafts, the Exhibition was conceived to be a comprehensive showcase of the region’s essence.
  • Journey to a Permanent Home: Over the years, before settling in its permanent location in 1908 at “Exhibition Park,” the fair had been hosted at multiple sites. These included the Port Arthur Waterfront, Casino Grounds, and the Port Arthur Armoury. This land, which is the eastern half of the current CLE grounds, was a significant acquisition made in collaboration with the former Cities of Port Arthur and Fort William.

Structural Evolution and Rebranding

  • Initial Infrastructural Developments: 1912 was a landmark year, marking the construction of foundational buildings including a grandstand, multiple livestock sheds, the Women’s Home Arts Building, an Office building, and an Agricultural building.
  • Name Transition: Reflecting its growing stature and breadth, the West Algoma Agricultural Society rebranded in 1929. After considerable deliberation, “The Canadian Lakehead Exhibition” was chosen, and the name endures to this day.

Expansion and Modernization over the years

  • Relocations and Additions in the 1930s: The CLE experienced significant spatial reorientation in 1934, especially with the relocation of the Women’s Home Arts Building to the May Street side. 1939 further saw vast land extensions and the construction of novel structures, like a larger grandstand and multiple livestock buildings.
  • Late 20th Century Revamps: The latter half of the century brought significant changes. The 1950s saw the rise of racing with The Lakehead Stock Car Club making use of the dirt track. Further, the 1959 and 1990s periods were marked by considerable extensions to the Coliseum and the inception of buildings like the Claydon and Scarnati structures.

Modern-Day Enhancements and Landmarks

  • A New Era in 1997-2000s: This period signified a comprehensive overhaul, with structures like The SilverCity Movie Theatre, the Heritage Building, and the winterized Dorothy Dove Building marking the transformation.
  • Iconic Landmarks: Throughout its history, the CLE grounds have been home to iconic structures. The Safeway Milk Carton and the renowned Co-op Milk Bottle were such symbols. The phrase “Meet Me at the Bottle,” related to the latter, remains nostalgic for many.

The Canadian Lakehead Exhibition stands as a beacon of community unity, heritage, and progress in Thunder Bay. As the event continues to adapt, it remains an emblem of the region’s rich past while looking forward to the future. This year, as the CLE festivities commence, visitors not only partake in an annual event but also celebrate a legacy over a century old.

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