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Imagine a vast “World’s Fair,” set in a five hundred acre urban park, with thirty-nine U.S. states and over fifty foreign countries and colonies contributing to approximately sixty-five thousand exhibits. A mile-long Midway would include restaurants, international villages and many entertainments and attractions, including the very first Ferris Wheel.
Such was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition – so named to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary (occurring the previous year) of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. Millions of Americans attended this exposition in Chicago during its six-month existence, from May 1 to October 30.
“The world is coming to see us, and we must put on our good clothes.” – I.M. Weston, President of the Michigan Board of World’s Fair Managers
On July 21, 1891, the Michigan State Legislature established the Board of World’s Fair Managers. Governor Edwin B. Winans appointed I.M. Weston, a Grand Rapids lumberman, to serve as Board President. Other members hailed from various parts of Michigan and represented the state’s most prominent industries, including agriculture, mining, manufacturing and forestry. The state legislature granted them an appropriation (later increased), and they set out to ensure Michigan a grand showing at the fair.
Michigan at the Fair
Weston submitted sketches for a Michigan building (Most states maintained buildings at the fair.). The supervising architect felt that Weston’s proposed building was too large for the lot. Weston insisted that Michigan needed a large building, however, and his view ultimately prevailed: the Michigan Building became the sixth largest state building at the Columbian Exposition.
The Michigan Building was built in Queen Anne style, elaborately decorated and sporting turrets and towers. Inside areas included an employee living quarters, a gentlemen’s reading room, a ladies’ parlor, a grand hall, an assembly room and a large exhibition room. The building served both as headquarters for Michigan delegates and a rest stop for Michigan tourists.
Michigan’s presence was felt throughout the fairgrounds. The state maintained exhibits in the Forestry, Agriculture, Mine and Mining, and Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Buildings. The Michigan Military Academy of Orchard Lake camped on the fair’s Midway in June, holding drills, dress parades and graduation exercises. “Michigan Days” were held September 13-14, with concerts, fireworks, speeches and 35,000 Michiganians in attendance (Other states had similar days of honor.).
The World’s Columbian Exposition ended on October 30, 1893. Many Michigan exhibit materials found homes in Michigan institutions. The Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) received the agricultural exhibit, the University of Michigan received a model of the Calumet and Hecla Mine and the state capitol received engravings of state officials, to give three examples. The Michigan Building eventually fell to the wrecking ball, and many other fairground structures succumbed to fire. The great “white city” (as it had been termed) was gone.
Yet, it remained in the memories of the millions who experienced it and is still discussed today. The Columbian Exposition left its mark on the country, and Michigan left its mark on the Columbian Exposition.
Board of World’s Fair Managers for the State of Michigan Collection, 1891-1894. MS 75-87. Lansing: Archives of Michigan.
Massie, Larry. “The Great American Fair: Michigan and the Columbian Exposition.” Michigan History Magazine May/June 1984, pp. 12-22.
Michigan. Executive Office. Records, 1810-1910. RG 44. Box 68, Folder 35, and Box 138, Folder 3. Lansing: Archives of Michigan.
Rosenberg, Chaim M. America at the Fair: Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
The Michigan Historical Center will be featuring an atrium case exhibit on the Columbian Exposition until December 1, 2013. Come view original 1893 artifacts, documents and photos on this famous World’s Fair.