Friday, March 25, 2016

Forgotten World’s Fairs: Detroit, 1889

If you are a regular reader of this blog, or know me in real life, you probably have noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with world’s fairs. So you can imagine how I felt when, while reading a letter to William Miner from his sister Jottie Mitchell, I encountered a reference to an exposition in Detroit that she was planning to visit. A fair that I’d never even heard of? I was already doing some research on another forgotten fair—the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial of 1926—and now here was another, even more obscure one. The Detroit International Exposition and Fair of 1889 turns out to be a really interesting example of a pre-1893 world’s fair—and an example of how even big events can be almost completely forgotten.

Aerial view of the Fair, from Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1889

Detroit in 1889 was still a decade away from opening its first automobile factory and boasted a diverse manufacturing economy, producing shoes, soap, paints and varnishes, hoopskirts, patent medicines, railroad cars, and packaged seeds, among many other commodities. Located on the Detroit River, which connects the Great Lakes with the St. Lawrence Seaway, it was a major port as well as a railway hub. But Michigan was also still predominantly an agricultural state, and the organizers of the Exposition and Fair hoped to demonstrate all that the region had to offer in both manufacturing and farming.

James McMillan, Exposition
President and founder of the
Michigan Car Company
The idea for a fair in Detroit had been a subject of much discussion for many years. City boosters wanted to hold an annual event that would be bigger and better than the Michigan State Fair, which moved among various cities. Like many Americans, they had been captivated by the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and were certain that a fair was a sure-fire way of drawing attention to their city. The president of the exposition corporation was James McMillan, someone Will Miner undoubtedly was familiar with, as he had made his fortune as a builder of railroad cars and was now representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate.

The corporation purchased 72 acres of vacant land just outside the city line, at the point where the Detroit and Rouge Rivers meet. Workers were brought in to drain marshes, lay railroad tracks, and build docks for excursion boats. Local architect Louis Camper designed a massive 200,000 square-foot exhibit hall with an observation tower, from which (as a writer from Harper’s Weekly put it) “may be seen a panorama worth an hour’s study.” To the left was the city, “tinged over with the smoke of industry,” and to the right, “the green fields of Canada.” On the river, barges, schooners, and steamships continually passed, while “all alongshore the giant elevators and the prosaic warehouses give strong contrast to the dim beauty of Belle Isle and the farther stretches of river and woodland, and the drifting sails of commerce.” The fairground and its surroundings united the natural world and the man-made world in a way that was particularly satisfying to 19th-century Americans.

Cattle and Sheep Exhibit
River Rouge Historical Museum
The Exposition opened on September 17, 1889. Although the day was rainy and many exhibits were still incomplete, the fair promised to be a success. There was so much to see, said the same Harper’s contributor, that only a “professional pedestrian” could hope to do it all in one day. In addition to the mechanical and agricultural exhibits, there were other wonders to behold: a house made entirely of soap, a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty, Professor Woodward’s trained seals, a pig who could play cards. There were games of baseball and lacrosse, horse racing and yachting competitions. The Detroit fair combined educational exhibits of art and technology with sideshow attractions in a way that future fairs would not.

Soap Cottage
River Rouge Historical Museum
By the time the fair closed on September 27, it had produced a tidy profit of $5,000 for its investors. It would run again for three more years. But in 1895, the land was sold to the Solvay Process Company, which tore down the exhibition buildings and began mining for salt. The former site of the fair, according to Detroit historian Richard Bak, is now “a toxic landscape of smokestacks and blown-out houses with the bleakest future of any neighborhood in the city.” This was an outcome that city residents and visitors to the fair probably never could have imagined. In 1889, they had every reason to believe that Detroit—along with the rest of the nation—could look ahead with boundless optimism toward a prosperous future.

So why has the Detroit Exposition and Fair been forgotten? Its original structures are gone, but that’s true of most fairs, which were never meant to be permanent. It was an annual event which ran for only ten days at a time, unlike other fairs which ran for six months, which meant that it ultimately received fewer visitors. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the Exposition Universelle going on at the same time in Paris—the main building’s tower may have provided a spectacular view, but it was no Eiffel Tower. From the perspective of later observers, it was probably also neglected because of the overwhelming success of that other great midwestern fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. But to visitors like Jottie Mitchell, it was a “grand affair,” one which symbolized all the hopes they had for the Middle West.


Richard Bak, “A Fair to Remember,” Hour Detroit, February 2009

Brendan Roney, “All Roads Lead to Delray,” Detroit Historical Society blog, December 2012

“Detroit International Fair and Exposition,” Environmental History in Detroit

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