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Rural Missouri Magazine
The Grandest Fair
of Them All

The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair remains a spectacle unmatched before or since

by Jeff Joiner

The beauty of this place was such as to fix the beholder to the spot. It was truly wonderful.” So wrote St. Louis attorney Edward Schneiderhahn as he attempted to convey what the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis looked like. “It is a pity that it is impossible for language to ever adequately describe feelings.”

The largest building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, was the Palace of Agriculture, which covered 18 acres. Visitors to the building passed a giant, working floral clock. Everything about the world’s fair in St. Louis was meant to impress and amaze.

Schneiderhahn, who witnessed the fair’s opening day on April 30, 1904, feared his words fell well short, as did most of those who experienced the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, as the St. Louis World’s Fair was officially called. Held to commemorate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which more than doubled the size of the United States, the St. Louis World’s Fair became the nation’s largest and most successful international exposition.

More than twice the physical size of the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, the St. Louis fair attracted more than 25 million visitors who traveled from all over the nation and the world to visit Missouri. The fair did more than look back at history. It more importantly looked ahead at the dawn of a new century full of the promise that technology and peace offered the world. No one at the fair in 1904 could imagine how that promise would be shattered by world war only a decade later.

“It was constructed to be sort of an ideal of what humanity was moving toward. It was the era of progress before World War I,” says Karl Kindt, who teaches a class on the history of the St. Louis World’s Fair at Webster University.

“There was a great sense of trust in human nature and that we were progressing toward a time where we would bring the peoples of the earth together.”

The Observation Wheel was the largest Ferris wheel in the world.

Everything about the St. Louis World’s Fair was huge and “indescribably grand,” wrote Schneiderhahn, whose memoir of the fair was included in a book of fair letters and diaries by that title published in 1996 by the Missouri Historical Society Press. The scale of the fair absolutely boggled the mind, says Southwest Missouri State University agriculture professor Lyndon Irwin, who has researched the farming and livestock exhibits there.

“It was absolutely huge in comparison to anything anyone at the time had probably ever seen in their lives,” says Irwin.

The fair grounds covered more than 1,200 acres of Forest Park in St. Louis and included more than 1,500 buildings and 5 million square feet of exhibition space. The architectural focus of the fair was several grand palaces which celebrated advances in the world’s technology and cultural development. The largest was the Palace of Agriculture, a building nearly a third of a mile long covering more than 18 acres and featuring 10,000 exhibitors.

“To put that into perspective,” says Irwin, “the Edward Jones Dome (home of the St. Louis Rams football team) covers about 12 acres.”

The world’s fair was a gigantic display case for companies, states and nations to show off their technological achievements as well as artistic and cultural refinements. It would be similar to an industrial trade show today but on a massive scale.

A button from Missouri Day at the St. Louis World's Fair

Someone once figured if they walked down every aisle of every building on the fair grounds, they would cover 142 miles, says Irwin. The fair was a showcase where fair officials encouraged demonstrations rather than static displays.

A working mine extracted coal from beneath Forest Park, which fueled a steam-turbine power plant on site, all open to the public. The Palace of Education demonstrated progressive educational ideas with students, kindergarten through college, attending classes while onlookers watched. The Palace of Transportation was so large a steam locomotive and coal car sat on a working turntable that slowly spun inside the building.

Fair visitors could watch everything from shoes to light bulbs being manufactured. And in one of the more infamous parts of the fair, “natives” from all over the world, including American Indians, African Pygmies and Igorot tribesmen from the Philippines were brought to St. Louis and placed in recreated villages for onlookers to gawk at. Apache Chief Geronimo was brought to the fair from prison at Fort Sill, in the Oklahoma territory, where he signed autographs for a dime.

“The idea behind bringing these people to the fair was to show that in this progressive era technology brought about the advancement of civilization,” says Kindt. “From ‘savages’ to modern man — it was all on display.”

For many rural visitors to the fair, the sights and sounds would have been beyond belief, says Irwin. Of special interest was the relatively recent invention of the electric light bulb. Thomas Edison was brought in as a consultant to help design the fair’s electrical system. Most of the fair’s palaces were outlined in more than 120,000 lights. One of the most spectacular sights at night was the Cascades, a series of lighted waterfalls and fountains.

A woman dressed in her Victorian finest studies the fair grounds from the Wireless Telegraph Tower observation deck. The fair was a showcase for many new technological innovations at the turn of the century.

“Can you imagine 100 years ago when you had hardly ever seen an electric light and then to see the twinkling lights outlining these palaces? It must have been unbelievable,” says Irwin.

Many buildings at the fair were air conditioned while in the Agriculture Palace many states displayed butter sculptures in refrigerated glass cases. Missouri’s 28-foot-long butter sculpture of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and a pair of dairy cows weighed 3,000 pounds.

A walk through the Agriculture Palace offered a glimpse of the latest advances in farm machinery and practices. For companies it offered a chance to show off products to hundreds of thousands of potential customers even if that meant building impractical machines to attract visitors to their exhibit. J.I. Case & Co. built a stream thresher made of mahogany while another manufacturer built a farm wagon with $3,000 worth of gold trim.

“In the Agriculture Bld’g. there was a plow that I wish you had . . . then you wouldn’t have to walk too much and get so tired,” wrote Florence McCallion to her husband, a farmer from Cadet, Mo., in a letter included in the book, “Indescribably Grand.”

McCallion was on hand for the end of the fair in December 1904 and witnessed an incredibly sad sight. “This afternoon Edmund and I went out to the fair grounds. When we entered it made me heart sick to see the ruin and desolation,” wrote McCallion.

By prior agreement with city officials, Forest Park was selected for the site of the fair only if it was returned to its previous state once the fair ended. With that in mind the huge, ornate palaces and other buildings, and the hundreds of statues and monuments, were constructed of a material called staff, a mixture of plaster of Paris and burlap. Staff looked like marble and could easily and affordably be shaped and sculpted, and then destroyed. The entire fair was designed to last only a few months.

Little remains of the original buildings of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The only structure permanently built was the Palace of Arts, which became the Saint Louis Art Museum (above). A statue of Saint Louis on horseback, originally built of plaster of Paris and burlap, was recast in bronze and graces the entrance to the art museum.

Of the 1,500 structures built for the fair the only building permanently constructed was the Palace of Art, which after the fair became the Saint Louis Art Museum. Of the hundreds of statues made for the fair the only one to remain in Forest Park is the statue of Saint Louis on horseback now in front of the art museum. It, too, was built of staff but later recast in bronze and moved to its present spot overlooking the site of the fair’s Grand Basin. Even the giant Observation Wheel, the largest Ferris wheel ever built, was dynamited and buried in the park.

“People paid admission to see the fair torn down and many wept the day they started,” says Kindt.

At an astronomical price of $15 million to stage, the St. Louis World’s Fair is believed to be the only world’s fair to make a profit. And though many of the hopes for a progressive world proved to be as elusive in 1904 as they do today, the St. Louis World’s Fair offered a bright look at the start of a new century.

“There was an awful lot of optimism about where we were going as a human community,” says Kindt.

Historic photographs courtesy of Lyndon Irwin. For more information about agricultural exhibits at the St. Louis World's Fair log onto Irwin's Web site at www.lyndonirwin.com/1904fair.htm. For more history of the fair, including information about events to commemorate the fair’s centennial, visit www.worldsfairstlouis.org.

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