Big nickel an icon of a different time

By Bret Evans

Canada seems to have become a nation of superlatives.

By that, I mean it seems as if every second community is laying claim to having something that is bigger, or oversized or better. From coast to coast towns are building statues of big fish, giant lobsters, mammoth Easter eggs, fly-fishing rods, flowers towering more than three metres, oranges, apples, geese, bowling pins, musical instruments, and more.

Numismatics is not immune from this fever and giant dollar coins exist in Churchbridge, Sask., and Echo Bay, Ont., while Campbellford, Ont., has a giant toonie, Virginiatown Ont., built a massive gold sovereign, and Boisetown, N.B., is reputed to have a giant wooden nickel.

Of course, the granddaddy of all of these is Sudbury’s Big Nickel, subject of an article in this issue.

I find it hard to believe that the most famous numismatic landmark in the country is just 50 years old. For me, it seems as if it has been around forever. Now granted, I was eight when it was built, so it has been around most of my life, but when I first heard about the icon it seemed to me that it was much older. Perhaps that’s because the design, rather than being the beaver, was the 1951 version of the coin showing a Sudbury smelter.

I was even more amazed when a few years ago I discovered that at one time there were other coins there. I have to admit that it never seemed possible to me that anyone could conceive of a numismatic-themed vacation destination.

But then I turned my mind back to those days in the early 1960s, both from my memory and a bit of research.

For one thing, back then Sudbury had an image problem. Mining and industrial processes were not as green as they are today and much of the area was barren. While I have never seen proof that NASA sent astronauts to the area to practice for the moon, I never doubted that fact.

In those days, few people planned on going to Sudbury; it was somewhere people went to on business or stopped by for a bite and fill-up on their way across the TransCanada Highway.

But the 1960s were a magical time because Canadians were counting down to 1967, when the country was to turn 100. In 1963, the Canadian government created a Centennial Commission and adopted an official logo, and federal money was available.

Numismatists are most familiar with the centennial banknote, and the one-year coin set, but there was so much more.

Driven by burgeoning nationalism, and some government grants, Canadians were being urged to take on what were called Centennial projects, most often in the form of community projects. I suspect countless parks were built and dedicated, movies commissioned, and the world’s fair, Expo 67, was won.

Sudbury had its own centennial committee and it was looking for ways to celebrate. The Big Nickel, or more precisely a numismatic park, was proposed but rejected. Eventually, it was built as a private venture, although it is now owned by the local government.

I doubt that today anyone would be excited enough about money to try to build a park. Certainly, at that time, the organizers had Centennial fever in their favour, and at one time they had a giant Kennedy coin to draw more people.

In the end, the park was dismantled and turned into a bigger facility.

Later on this year, the Big Nickel will hit the big 5-0. Let me be among the first to wish it a happy birthday.

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