Historic Sites of Manitoba: Old Exhibition Grounds (Winnipeg)
This 80-acre site west of the Canadian Pacific Railway Yards in north Winnipeg, bounded by Selkirk, Sinclair, Jarvis, and McPhillips streets, was purchased in 1891 by the City of Winnipeg as a site for an annual event called the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition. Held for the first time over five days in late September and early October 1891, the exhibition was intended to showcase local industrial and agricultural innovation. That first exhibition offered exhibitors over $13,000 in prize money and it was attended by thousands of people. It grew to a week-long event and then to ten days. In 1896, the city declared a half-day civic holiday to allow more people to attend the Exhibition. By 1904, attendance reached 210,000 people, or about 57 percent of Manitoba’s total population at that time.
The Industrial Exhibition was really an entertainment event masquerading as an industrial fair. In addition to displays of industrial and agricultural machinery, there was exhibits of farm produce and livestock, and displays of art, natural history, school work, dogs, and babies. In 1910 and 1911, aviators took off and landed an “aeroplane” on the grounds. There were circus acts, trapeze gymnastics, animal parades, and auto racing. In 1913, 60,000 people packed the stands to watch cowboys (and cowgirls) demonstrate roping and riding at the Winnipeg Stampede. There was a midway with a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, and other rides, food concessions, games of chance, and evening fireworks.
From 1908 to 1913, the Exhibition hosted the Winnipeg Light Agricultural Motor Contests. The phrase “agricultural motor” was soon replaced by another word: tractor. At this time, tractors were still a new, innovative piece of machinery that, in the coming decades, would replace horses on the farm. During the Exhibition, they did scientific trials of new tractor designs, pitting one tractor against another in real-world tasks such as plowing and hauling, and took detailed measurements of their performance. The event drove early innovation in the tractor industry.
The Exhibition remained highly popular right to the end, with some 60,000 people a day attending it in 1914. Despite financial investments by the City of Winnipeg—and being widely recognized as one of the largest and best fairs in Canada—it never received much support from the federal government. And there was competition from events elsewhere, including Brandon’s Summer Fair that had started in 1882. By 1912, the Exhibition had an accumulated debt of $67,000. In December 1914, Winnipeg taxpayers voted to reject a $40,000 grant to offset the losses. Manitobans would not see the likes of the Industrial Exhibition again until 1952 with the start of the Red River Exhibition.
The grandstand and circular race track continued to be used for events at least into the 1920s, for automobile racing, motorcycle racing, and outdoor gatherings by such groups as the Great War Veterans Association. By the early 1920s, the buildings were said to be decrepit and needing replacement. Instead, they were torn down or moved away. Through the 1920s, the area was a campground for automobile-driving visitors, and there were calls to turn the entire area into a public park. In 1935, the area was used by 1,000 unemployed men who had come into Winnipeg from federal government’s relief work camps to take part in the “On to Ottawa” Trek. Fearing unrest, Winnipeg officials allow them to gather at the Old Exhibition Grounds. After the Second World War, a group of 28 small (480 square foot) houses were built for war veterans and their families.
The site is now used for a mixture of housing, business, and public recreation. A slice was taken off its north side, along Selkirk Avenue, in the 1940s/1950s for residential housing. On the east side, along Sinclair Street, are 28 townhouse apartments built in the mid-2000s to replace those small military houses, an outdoor ice rink, and the Sergeant Tommy Prince recreation and leisure facility. The centre contains several baseball diamonds. The south side, along Jarvis Avenue, is now filled with large commercial buildings. On the west side, adjacent to McPhillips Street, are playing fields used by the Winnipeg Nomads Football Club.
In late 2020, the Winnipeg City Council approved the construction of a new police station in the former Exhibition Grounds.
Photos & Coordinates
Page revised: 8 January 2021