Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A World's Fair to Remember

If you're a fan of pop culture, you may know that the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack and Juicy Fruit gum all debuted at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  If you're a student of architecture, you may know about the fair because of the contributions of Daniel H. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, among other well-known architects.  Or, you may have read Erik Larson's amazing non-fiction book, Devil in the White City, which explains both Burnham's herculean efforts to build the fair, and the fiendish way serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes (aka Herman Webster Mudgett) used the fair to lure victims, mostly young women, to his nearby hotel.

The Stearns History Museum, in my dad's hometown of St. Cloud, Minn., is hosting a traveling exhibit through May 10 called Centuries of Progress: American World’s Fairs 1853-1982.  It includes items from the Chicago World's Fair, also known as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The museum is having a special family day this Sunday, April 11.  More information about the exhibit is available on the museum's Facebook page and website.

I've heard many references to the Chicago World's Fair over the years, but I became even more interested in its history after learning that my great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs, attended the fair as a young woman.

Islea Graham at about age 18

Islea graduated from Aledo High School in May 1892.  Several months later, she traveled to Chicago to take music lessons from Emil Liebling, a pupil of Franz Liszt, at the Chicago Conservatory of Music.  She lived with her aunt, Luella Bassett Adams, during her stay in the city.

 This article is from an Aledo, Ill., newspaper.

I have a scrapbook of Islea's, and in it she pasted programs of the numerous concerts she attended while in Chicago, including some by the Chicago Symphony, directed by Theodore Thomas.  Thomas was the musical director of the World's Fair for a time, but he quit out of frustration because he felt audiences weren't appropriately appreciative of the high quality classical music.  They preferred the excitement of the Midway.

Islea also attended several operettas, including a touring production of Girofle-Girofla starring the famous actress Lillian Russell.

I know from news accounts that a special train ran from Islea's hometown of Aledo to the fair, and that Islea's grandfather, prominent attorney Isaac Newton Bassett, attended the Fair's dedication ceremonies, held on Oct. 21, 1892.

An Oct. 28, 1892, article in the Aledo Democrat described it this way: "A large number of visitors to the World’s Fair city returned Monday evening.  It is said that the dedicatory exercises were on a scale so grand as to beggar all description.  M. F. Felix and I. N. Bassett returned home from Chicago Saturday evening where they witnessed the greatest celebration Chicago has ever known."

The fairgrounds weren't opened to the public until May 1, 1893, and the fair continued until October 30, 1893.

A program from a concert Islea attended on Oct. 20, 1893.

I'm not sure how long Islea attended school in Chicago.  Her programs seem mostly to be from October through December of both 1892 and 1893.  It makes me wonder if she returned home to Aledo for some time in the middle, and returned to Chicago during the latter months of 1893.

I know from reading newspaper items that Islea's parents, William Graham and Flora Bassett Graham, were among the Aledo residents who traveled to the fair at least a couple of times.  I have yet to establish whether my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, also attended the fair.  I would bet money that he did, though.  It was too big of an event for him to miss, especially considering that John Philip Sousa's new band played there twice.  Sousa had left his position as director of the U.S. Marine Band and formed his own band, which played in Chicago for two weeks in October 1892, and returned to the World's Fair for concerts in May and June 1893.

I know that G. Oliver and Sousa were acquainted, at least by 1899, when G. Oliver lived in Crookston, Minn.  One of the puzzles I've yet to solve is how and when they met.  It could have been at the World's Fair.  It would certainly make for a good story!  I will have to expound on the G. Oliver/Sousa connection in a future post.

G. Oliver knew Islea in 1893, but I don't think they were dating yet.  He was teaching music at the Iowa Wesleyan Conservatory of Music in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and would travel to his parents' home in Joy, Ill., near Aledo, on weekends and breaks.  According to his notes, he spent time in Chicago in either the summer of 1893 or 1894 studying violin with Luigi von Kunitz, who later became the director of the Toronto Symphony.

After the fair closed, a fire broke out and destroyed most of the famed White City.  One of the two original buildings that remain is the Palace of Fine Arts, which became the first site of the Field Museum and later was renovated to become the Science and Industry Museum of Chicago.  I've been to the building a few times in my life, but I hadn't known about my family connection to the World's Fair until my most recent visit, last September, when we went to the museum to to see Harry Potter: The Exhibition.

While we walked inside and around the grounds of the massive building, I thought about my great-grandmother.  Had she, too, witnessed magical displays inside these walls?  Had she taken a ride on the Ferris Wheel, an amusement that must have seemed as improbable as riding a Firebolt broomstick?  Did she buy an overpriced package of Juicy Fruit, like Elias purchased an overpriced package of Chocolate Frogs in the exhibit gift shop?  Or did she stick to musical pleasures?  Her scrapbook does not reveal the answers to these questions.

Louisa displays her Harry Potter exhibit souvenir T-shirt inside the Science and Industry Museum in September 2009.

Even though I've seen pictures of the World's Fair, as I stood on the former site, gazing toward Lake Michigan, I found it it difficult to visualize where the buildings were located in relation to each other, and how the canals and lagoons complemented the classical architecture.  I've discovered that I could get a better idea if I were to take advantage of the museum's new Blueprints to Our Past Tour, which explains the building's origins and includes a simulated computer tour of the White City.  The special tour starts later this month, on April 25, and is scheduled on Sundays through Dec. 12, 2010.

We may have to revise our summer or fall plans to include a trip to Chicago.  If we can't fit it in, we'll have to do the next best thing.  Load the iTunes library with Sousa tunes, and break out the Cracker Jack.


  1. I think a trip to Chicago sounds great!

  2. Count me in! Right? Right? Who doesn't like taking Brendon to Chicago?

    Another great one, Joy.

    (Editorial note: you typed "1992," when you probably meant "1892." Unless it was a special World's Fair Centennial edition of the Aledo Democrat.)

  3. Thanks, Brendon! We can fit six people in my Mazda.

    And thanks for the copy editor eyes. Yes, it was 1892; I made the change.

  4. Great info. I have recently found out about the 1893 fair, and it has captured me completely. Can't stop thinking about it. So cool that you have family that was there.

    If you have more information about the fair, and Islea's experiences I would love to read more.

  5. Thanks, James! I do think the fair was a fascinating event. I hope to write more about the fair and my ancestors' experiences there. I probably need to plan a research trip to Chicago.