New Centennial Conservation Expo Promises to Conjure the Spirit of the Enormous, Influential 1913 Fair

On Wednesday, with some Edwardian fanfare, Mayor Madeline Rogero and her staff announced the centennial celebration of the National Conservation Exposition of 1913. If all goes according to still-unfolding plans, this year's Centennial Conservation Expo will be an unusual Saturday in October involving dozens of regional organizations, all commemorating a huge event that's both almost forgotten and more resonant than ever.

The original exposition was one of the biggest things that ever happened in Knoxville. America's first exposition ever to focus on our diminishing natural resources, planned under the supervision of national conservationist Gifford Pinchot, the exposition drew one million visitors to Chilhowee Park during a remarkable two-month period in the fall of that year, almost one century ago, and made national headlines.

Many who worked together on that exposition would, a decade later, be thickly involved in establishing a permanent project called the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1913, though, the main concern was the prospect of running out of natural resources, and how best to manage them for the best interests of the nation.

It wasn't all that solemn; it's likely that most of the exposition's million visitors came just for the fun. It included motorcycle races, hot-tamale stands, balloon ascensions, dances, Italian tenors, vivid impressionist art, daredevils, fireworks. Much of this October's commemoration will be planned in the same spirit.

The original exposition might have been considered a high point for Knoxville. The grand palaces built for it all over Chilhowee Park have all been gone for decades, most of them demolished or burned before 1940. The one structure that remains is the pretty marble-block bandstand.

The two-month exposition will be celebrated with a one-day celebration on Oct. 12 that promises to revive both the message and the atmosphere of the original event, with a wide range of participants and attractions, most of them as yet unannounced.

"This will be a great opportunity to celebrate Knoxville's history, and also to highlight East Tennessee's ongoing commitment to conservation," says Mayor Rogero. "It can be easy to take for granted our natural and historical treasures, whether it's the Great Smoky Mountains or Ijams Nature Center. But all of these things are here for us to enjoy today only because of the efforts and work of people who came before us. That's important for us to keep in mind as we continue our work to make Knoxville greener and more sustainable."

The centennial celebration was the brainchild of our former colleague, former Metro Pulse managing editor Jesse Fox Mayshark, now communications manager for the Rogero administration. He's heading up the project. "I've personally had a fascination, that I think a lot of people share, with that whole late 19th and early 20th century period of expositions," he says. "I have a little bit of a personal connection to that era; my mother's grandfather came to the United States from Germany to work as a gardener at the St. Louis World's Fair" in 1904. It was considered a model and inspiration for Knoxville's 1913 exposition.

"Now we have a mayor who campaigned and was elected on a platform of a sustainable and green Knoxville," he says. "And we had this expo a century ago, dedicated to conservation, and it all ties in with things the city's doing now." He mentions Ijams, Urban Wilderness, parks and greenways. "Look, we had this amazing thing 100 years ago that was dedicated to conservation."

It might give Knoxville a purchase on a national phenomenon that's not following the lead of some other city or region. Knoxville has been slow to catch on to a lot of trends, over the years, but when conservation became a major national force, this city was right there in the vanguard—sometimes, as in 1913, taking the lead. The subtext, Mayshark acknowledges, is that conservation's not some foreign idea foisted upon us by outside agencies; it's homegrown.

Moreover, it's emerging again in the 21st century as one of the city's most vigorously pursued and marketable traits.

Carol Evans, executive director of the expansive private philanthropy known as Legacy Parks Foundation, is vigorously involved in the project. "From my perspective," she says, "the timing could not be more fortunate. There's a general sense right now—and I don't know whether people call it ‘conservationism'—but a sense of embracing our natural assets, and of what can be done with them.

"I think there's a sense of looking at what was done, but also impressing a thought of what's to come. I see parallels of thinking," she says, between 1913 and 2013.

She'll be working with interior exhibitry, but also outdoors opportunities. Nothing very specific is planned yet, but she mentions bicycling; she's worked with mountain bikers on the South Loop. Bicycling was big in 1913.

Paul James, executive director of Ijams Nature Center, brings up bicycling, too, as an example of how things have come back around, in many ways, better than in 1913. "So many people are using the trails, we're barely keeping up with the demand," he says.

James is originally from England, but he's one of few Knoxvillians who was already familiar with some of the lore of the 1913 National Conservation Exposition. It was a major event in the life of ornithologist/conservationist Harry Ijams, who'd founded his bird sanctuary home not long before the big fair. James has studied Ijams' life in depth, and authored a book about him.

"Knoxville was really forward-thinking then, and in some ways we've lived up to that" James says, then adds, "especially in the last decade." He mentions the proliferation of new bike trails, Legacy Parks' Urban Wilderness efforts, and the large expansions of Ijams. "Otherwise, we'd be saying, What happened, guys?"

He speaks of a little-known drama concerning the 1913 exposition. The local Audubon Society was split over the fair, half eager to get involved, the other half aloof, convinced that greeting the rabble wasn't worth the trouble. The schism that did get involved in the fair mounted an exhibit concerning endangered species—a relevant subject, considering the last-known passenger pigeon died in Cincinnati one year after the opening of the Knoxville fair. James intends to resurrect that exhibit, in effect, with information about Ijams' present endangered-birds exhibits, and the upcoming Passenger Pigeon Project.

The progressive faction that did participate in the fair included Harry Ijams, and in years to come, the group attempted to establish a 1,000-acre bird sanctuary, a City of Birds, on the south side of the river in the vicinity of Ijams. The tenuous sanctuary came apart due to development pressure (Dickinson Island became an airport). James finds it remarkable that Ijams' 1,000-acre goal has substantially arrived in the 21st century, connecting Ijams to the urban wilderness and the adjacent wildlife preserve.

The event will also highlight Chilhowee Park, such a priority for the Rogero administration the mayor chose it as her inaugural site. "It's this jewel," Mayshark says, "but except for being the site of the Tennessee Valley Fair every year, I don't know that people think about it a lot." One of the few events already lined up for the festival is a sort of Golden Gloves open house, with some exhibition sparring. Boxing doesn't have much to do with conservation, maybe, but it's relevant to Chilhowee Park, and to the 1913 era.

Most of the participants will be more conservation-oriented. Already a few dozen organizations are already involved in the project, ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Knox County Solid Waste; from the biodiversity-research group Discover Life in America to the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Extension Service; from Cherokee National Forest to the Knoxville Zoo. The Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound will be there, showing rare films about area conservation over the last 100 years. Knox Heritage will be there, both concerning their more recent efforts to preserve national landscapes, and the role architectural preservation plays in conservation. The Tennessee Valley Authority will be there; Mayshark remarks that two of the emphases of the 1913 expo were erosion and flood control, which 20 years later became TVA's priorities. Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be a part of it. Mayshark says he hasn't even invited everybody yet; he wants to include, for example, fishing and hunting organizations that have pushed for conservation in different ways over the years.

Mayshark will be promoting the expo at this weekend's EarthFest. As was the case with the 1913 fair, Mayshark says, a lot of it will be educational, but a lot will be entertainment, with live music "from barbershop to rock 'n' roll" and athletic competitions, especially for kids. There's been talk of a bicycle race to the park that morning. And some interesting food. Several other blue-sky proposals aren't quite ready for the promise implied by an announcement. But Mayshark says the city's goal is to make it a zero-waste event. That may be the most ambitious proposal yet.

Considered unsafe for use in recent years, the 1913 fair's one tangible survivor, the marble bandstand, is now off limits. Despite its durability, it was built in just a week by volunteer masons using hardly any mortar. Architect John Sanders is mulling its preservation. Word is that it may be finished by October, but even if not, it will be a symbolic centerpiece of the 2013 celebration.