Fair Warning: Knoxville's Had at Least Two Major Expositions, One Famous One and One Influential One

Fronting the fall issue of Preservation magazine is a story about the problems and potentials inherent in World’s Fair sites. At issue are daunting struggles to preserve the few remainders of New York’s 1964 World’s Fair, but it mentions a few other expositions as examples. Just after questioning the wisdom of the New York fair’s planners, who created big impressive things that didn’t have long-term uses, it mentions Knoxville.

“Still, a lack of foresight doesn’t always mean an unhappy ending for these unique sites and constructions,” goes the article by Gwendolyn Purdom. “In Knoxville, Tenn., the Sunsphere, the distinctive symbol of the 1982 fair, spent years vacant following the event. (A 1996 episode of The Simpsons even spoofed the abandoned tower, suggesting it was being used as storage for a discount wig warehouse.) But in 2005, the city’s mayor announced that the Sunsphere and the amphitheater, the fair’s only other remaining building, would be renovated for public use. The Sunsphere’s observation deck reopened in 2007, and private businesses moved into the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth floors of the giant sphere in 2008.”

That’s slightly simplified—the Sunsphere was never completely abandoned. There were some offices up yonder well before 2007. But we’ll take it.

The article includes a photo of the Sunsphere, probably not one the Chamber of Commerce would have chosen. It emphasizes the old railroad crossing more than any of the $160 million improvements of 10 years ago.

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World’s Fair Park isn’t the only interesting local site of an exposition that got international attention. For two months in the fall of 1913, one million people came to another Knoxville fair. Almost comparable in size and scope to a world’s fair, it was called the National Conservation Exposition. Directed by one of America’s first conservationist leaders, Gifford Pinchot, it was a very big deal, the first exposition ever held about the subject of tending our natural resources. It’s even been claimed that it was the first American exposition that was more about the future than the past. It was the subject of thoughtful essays in newspapers across the county. Political and reformist leaders like William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, and Booker T. Washington came here to speak. And they sold that latest food craze, tamales.

I researched it for an article a few years ago and became intrigued about its possible effects. I became half-convinced the example of the National Conservation Exposition and the friendships formed there played a role in the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park effort began in earnest here about 10 years later, involving many of the same people who had put together the exposition.

The 1913 fair was a coalescence of visionaries, architects, industrialists, artists, Knoxville’s best and brightest, at a municipal high point that I’m not sure we’ve exceeded since. From a civic-booster point of view, there’s hardly any event in Knoxville’s history more promising to celebrate. It proves we were well ahead of the curve, and that care about the environment is not some Yankee impertinence.

The NCE also shows that long before the Vols had any reputation for football, long before the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Manhattan project, Knoxville was a city of some substance and potential, a place people had heard of, a place that could mount an exposition and have one million people come to town to see it.

As is evident even in that Preservation story, almost all national-media references to Knoxville in 2013 are to “Knoxville, Tenn.,” assuming people won’t know where it is. In 1913, most national press referred simply to “Knoxville.” People in New York and Chicago knew what it was. It was a burgeoning industrial city with a conservationist soul.

Maybe the turmoil of the World War that followed about nine months after the fair closed is the reason it was forgotten faster than some comparable events. We didn’t conserve much of the conservation exposition and its several large, noble-looking marble buildings, except for the old marble-chunk bandstand, subject of a preservation effort not quite completed.

This Saturday’s Centennial Conservation Expo will stir up some old traditions, including performances by (arguably) appropriate groups: The Bearded, the Johnson Swingtet, Morgan County’s Shelter Road Band, One World Circus. At 11 a.m., there will be a keynote address by Leila Pinchot, seminal conservationist Gifford Pinchot’s great-granddaughter—who happens to be a recent Ph.D. graduate of UT in natural resources. Perhaps more surprising is a visit from the Prophet of the Smokies, a mysterious figure who played a ceremonial role in lots of Knoxville fairs in the late 1800s and early 1900. It usually turned out to be a local celebrity in disguise.

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I’m going. But I’ve brought up this paradox before. Non Game Day has become a bigger liability to non-football events than football ever is. Non Game Day has become the equivalent of a municipal holiday; everything’s scheduled for it. This Saturday’s celebration of the world’s first conservation exposition deserves to be a big deal. But people interested in Knoxville history will also be tempted by Knoxville’s most dramatic Civil War sesquicentennial event, the re-enactment of the Battle of Knoxville. And the same weekend is the Museum of Appalachia’s huge Fall Homecoming, the most popular regional-heritage event of the year. It’s also the day of the first-ever Tennessee Adventure Challenge, maybe the biggest outdoors event ever held in Knoxville; Maryville’s Foothills Fall Festival (featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd!); the Karl Wagner Fall Fear and Fantasy Festival, commemorating Knoxville’s most famous horror writer; and East Tennessee’s biggest beer festival, the Knoxville Brewer’s Jam. Not to mention several other things we’d try if we weren’t trying to do everything else.

It’s bigger than Christmas, and we look forward to it every year. Maybe we don’t like to put it this way. But every Non Game Day, we seem to be celebrating, as a community, shouting, “Hurrah! No football today!”

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