A Fair to Remember

Although almost forgotten today, the spectacular Detroit International Exposition & Fair of 1889 put the growing, pre-automotive city in the glare of the international spotlight, drawing attention to the metropolis’ potential, progress, and prosperity

Fiji Jim was there. So were Professor Woodward and his trained seals. Professor Bartholomew, acclaimed “Balloon Ascension Specialist,” made his daring leap through the clouds. Miss Ida Williams, “The Female Colossus of Fat Women,” came to town, as did trainloads of manufacturers, salesmen, livestock handlers, city slickers, and country cousins. It was Detroit’s great fair, and everybody was welcome.

Nobody alive has a personal memory of the Detroit International Exposition & Fair of 1889, and no physical traces of the great exhibit hall — at the time, the largest such building in the world — remain. The attractively arranged site in Delray that fair patrons once strolled across in their starched blouses, sailor hats, pressed pants, and tight shoes is today part of the most polluted and forsaken neighborhood in the city.

Detroit’s “big show” of 1889 belonged to an era of ambitious fairs (the Eiffel Tower was unveiled that year at Paris’ fair, which commemorated the centennial of the French Revolution), but Detroit’s was unusual in that it did not celebrate an anniversary. Rather, it was principally an exercise in good old-fashioned civic boosterism, headed by a group of leading citizens whose names today grace various streets, parks, and buildings. “It is not to be an agricultural fair alone,” promoters boasted in a printed circular, “it is not to be merely an industrial fair; nor is it simply an exposition; but it is a grand combination of all these features, which makes it the greatest institution of its kind in the world.” Harper’s Weekly thought enough of the undertaking to devote much of a single issue to Detroit and its fair. “It is a beautiful city,” the journal’s correspondent noted, “strong in resources, full of life, and rich with opportunity.”

Detroit in 1889 was still seven years away from having the first automobile appear on its streets, and a full decade away from the opening of its first auto factory. As a result, industry in the future Motor City was more diversified during this period than at any other stage in its long history. Hundreds of companies, large and small, produced shoes, stoves, varnishes, paints, drugs, cigars, patent medicines, boats, hoopskirts, railroad cars, steel rails, brass fittings, soap, and seeds for local consumption and export.

In the process of flexing its muscles, Detroit “had lost most of its small-town characteristics and had become a real city, big and bustling,” historian Arthur M. Woodford would later write. The population had nearly doubled in a decade to 206,000 people, making it the 15th largest city in the country.

Development had pushed north, east, and west from lower Woodward Avenue, with the new residential sections “planted in what only a short time before had been corn fields and wood lots. Huge elm, maple, and chestnut trees shaded the streets, and gracious homes, most of them frame and painted either white or dark green, gave the new residential areas an air of comfort and well-being.” The streets were paved with cobblestones and cedar blocks and the sidewalks were made of wood. The widespread use of electricity was literally just around the corner — garish 125-foot towers illuminated intersections throughout the city — but for now, homes and businesses still used gaslight and trolleys were drawn by horses. Major symbols of progress — a new art museum, the city’s first skyscraper, a second train depot — had either just opened or were under way.

For years, Detroiters of means and influence had been talking of holding a permanent annual event on a much grander scale than the Michigan State Fair, which rotated among various cities. Their imaginations had been stoked by the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the country’s first official world’s fair. The idea of marrying an agricultural fair to an industrial exposition seemed to make sense. By the middle 1880s, thanks principally to the unflagging efforts of local merchant Eber Cottrell, enough of Detroit’s movers and shakers had signed on to the dream to make it an actuality. By early 1889, the exposition company had a capital stock of $500,000 to draw on. The goal was not only to showcase the products of the city and the state, but also to draw attention to Detroit and boost its stature among other great cities.

The president of the exposition company was U.S. Sen. James McMillan, who had made his fortune manufacturing railroad cars. Other notables among the 100-plus stockholders were ex-governor Russell Alger, a Civil War general who’d also grown rich off rolling stock; Thomas W. Palmer, a former U.S. senator who was appointed minister to Spain in early 1889; and Dexter M. Ferry, who operated the largest catalog seed company in the country.

Disdaining sky-high real-estate prices in the growing city, officers of the enterprise bought 72 acres of unincorporated land at the juncture of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers, just south of Fort Wayne and about 1,000 yards beyond Detroit’s western boundary. The bucolic area, valued at $150,000, had long been enjoyed by canoeists, fishermen, and hunters. C.W. Robinson, known as “a cultivated, well-informed gentleman of liberal tastes,” was hired as general manager, based on his experience with several New York fairs. By the time the exposition ended, he would be described as being in a state of near collapse.

Fairgoers gather at the gazebo to listen to Cappa’s 7th Regiment Band.

In the spring of 1889, a small army of laborers moved in to drain the marshes and clear the farmland. Contractors followed, and soon the grounds began to acquire a profile. Railroad tracks were laid directly into the grounds. Two separate docks were built to handle excursion boats. Meanwhile, Robinson signed up hundreds of exhibitors eager to display their wares, most of them from Michigan and Canada. The announcement that $100,000 in cash prizes would be awarded in the various competitions created great interest. With nearly a month to go before opening, would-be exhibitors were being turned away because of lack of space in the main hall. Dozens chose to build small cottage-size structures at private expense all around the grounds, which were surrounded by a high fence. The livestock buildings also rapidly filled up. As opening day approached, a “Babel of bleating, cackling, mooing, and grunting” arose from the stalls, which housed “the finest breeds of cattle, sheep, swine, and poultry,” one daily paper reported. The final catalog of entries in the horse, cattle, and sheep categories alone filled 70 pages of fine print.

The main exhibit building, made entirely of wood, sprang from the drawings of local architect Louis Kamper. The young German immigrant had just designed a 49-room turreted mansion on Woodward Avenue for Frank J. Hecker, president of the Peninsular Car Co., and he would go on to design such landmarks as the Book-Cadillac Hotel. Kamper’s design resembled a grand European palace. It had a frontage of nearly 500 feet, a 20-story main tower, four corner towers, almost five acres of glass, and boasted 200,000 square feet of exhibition space — enough room to hold two or three typical state fairs.

In this pre-aviation age, in which ordinary folks could gain a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings only by climbing to the top of a hill or a tall building, the main tower would prove a resounding hit. William Willard Howard, in town for Harper’s Weekly, was allowed an early peek. “From the tower of the Main Building may be seen a panorama worth an hour’s study,” he wrote a month before the expo opened. “To the left, reaching out to the horizon, lies the city, tinged over with the smoke of industry. To the right the green fields of Canada stretch up from the eastern shore of the Detroit River, and go out to meet the lower rim of the distant sky. Close at hand the stately river flows past, with its fleet of barges, its casual schooners, and its steam craft, while all alongshore the giant elevators and the prosaic warehouses give a strong contrast to the dim beauty of Belle Isle and the farther stretches of river and woodland, and the drifting sails of commerce.”

Although America was changing from an agrarian to an industrial nation, with mechanized advances improving productivity on the farm and at the factory, the majority of its citizens still lived in rural areas. In 1889, Michigan had 160,000 farms (more than three times today’s figure), including the largest number of small farms — those between 25 and 50 acres — of any state. The activities of communities like Royal Oak, Rochester, Milford, and Ortonville continued to revolve mainly around agriculture. Entertainment options were minimal and rudimentary by urban standards. The provincial country “rube” was a stock character on stage and in print. For many, a visit to the “big city” was a rare treat; for some, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Detroit was an accommodating host. Red, white, and blue bunting, streamers, and flags decorated the doors, windows, and cornices of businesses along the major thoroughfares. On the eve of the fair’s opening, the crush of tourists caused several leading hotels — including the elegant Russell House (at the corner of Woodward and Michigan avenues) and the new Wayne Hotel (at Third and Woodbridge, opposite the original Michigan Central Railroad Depot) — to put guests three and four to a room while the overflow slept on cots in the hallways and parlors.

The Detroit International Exposition & Fair opened its 40 gates at 8 a.m. on Sept. 17, 1889, a blustery Tuesday that followed two days of cold rain. It was Children’s Day. Schools were closed, and an estimated 6,000 youngsters were admitted free. Thousands of adults joined them, arriving by trolley, steamer, train, buggy, bicycle, on horseback, and on foot. “Let Detroit put on her best holiday attire and sweetest smile and make everybody happy,” declared the Detroit Tribune. “They used to call Detroit ‘old fogy.’ Let those who think that term is applicable now come here and repent and be saved before it is everlastingly too late.”

The fair’s debut was anything but smooth. With many exhibits still unfinished, visitors spent the day maneuvering around workers lugging in furnishings, hanging drapes, and sawing wood. Opening ceremonies were delayed for more than an hour until several lost members of Cappa’s 7th Regiment Band, which was hired to provide music throughout the two-week event, finally arrived. With a stiff wind blowing his words right back in his face and hammers echoing in the background, Sen. McMillan addressed the throngs from the veranda of the main hall. In his judgment, “Detroit had entered upon a new era in her history. Her businessmen have shown that when it becomes necessary to undertake a great public enterprise, they can act in harmony. … It has also been demonstrated that among our citizens we have architects who can design and mechanics and workmen who can execute with as much energy and skill as can be done in any city.”

Following a bit more oratory by other dignitaries, McMillan pushed an electric button, signaling the engine room of the massive $30,000 power plant. An engineer’s little daughter pulled a lever, and the entire machinery of the exposition was put into motion.

A trade card from from the second year of the fair.

Visitors discovered a city within a city. Harper Hospital had constructed an aid station, and there was a jail, post office, and train depot. For those who might be tempted to stray from the straight and narrow path, there was a “tabernacle gospel tent,” as well as a booth manned by members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. A miniature lake had been built, and a racetrack installed around it. The band gazebo and a merry-go-round both saw heavy duty. The various buildings dripped with carpentered gingerbread and colorful bunting, all of which were illuminated by spiring electric lamp towers. The transformation of the area in just five months was remarkable. It prompted one fairgoer, a Frenchman from Ecorse, to exclaim: “My God, look a dat! I shoot duck in ‘e mash here last spring!”

All of Detroit’s iconic names of the period were out in full force. Mabley & Co., long the city’s largest retailer, spent $20,000 on a trio of glass-enclosed booths. One featured a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty, which had been on its pedestal in New York harbor for just three years. The Detroit Soap Co. had the most fragrant cottage on the grounds, the entire structure being carved from giant cakes of its popular Queen Anne soap. Workers at the Pingree & Smith exhibit made hundreds of pairs of shoes each day for the benefit of onlookers. “Each exhibitor has striven to out-do his neighbor,” a wide-eyed attendee who walked the corridors and galleries marveled, “and the class of goods and the varieties are almost bewildering.”

Adjacent to the main hall was an art gallery. The T-shaped building housed some 300 paintings, including Konstantin Makovsky’s The Russian Wedding Feast. Fair managers had been so eager to display the painting that they agreed to pay its owner, a New York diamond merchant, $3,000 and all of his expenses while in town — a shakedown that helped persuade management to reluctantly charge an admission fee of 25 cents to view the gallery.

There was much to take in. There were 15 acres of steam engines, threshing machines, presses, and other machinery, and a long line of mechanical and industrial halls. Exhibits included a palm garden, a floral palace, and miles of stalls displaying horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry, and pets. There were band concerts and piano recitals and competitions of all sorts: yachting, riding, shooting, track and field, horse racing, baseball, and lacrosse. One could gaze at giant prize squashes and pumpkins while being entertained by a clarion player performing an aria from Rigoletto, or sit on the veranda of the main hall and try to bounce peanut shells off a passerby’s derby.

The grounds were open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except Sunday. Admission was 50 cents for adults, a quarter for children. Steamboats and trolleys ferried visitors to and from the exposition in five-minute intervals. Businesses, both legal and otherwise, looked to take advantage. Keepers of boardinghouses cashed in by lodging strangers everywhere from the cellar to the garret. Few concerned themselves with fire-escape regulations. On the fairgrounds, beer was sold only in the main hall’s restaurant, so enterprising citizens stepped in to fill the void. “The thoroughfares leading to the main entrance to the exposition where cheap beer joints are springing up by the dozen are known as No Man’s land because nobody seems inclined to make the keepers of the joints obey,” one newspaper complained. “The police can’t interfere because the joints are outside the city limits, the sheriff’s powers doesn’t extend far enough for him to enforce the payment of a license, and the township board is too slow to prevent any infraction of the law.”

More than one worldly “drummer” (salesman) or unsuspecting yokel found their way into the sporting houses of the riverfront vice district known as the Potomac. “It extended eastward from Woodward about a mile to the vicinity of the railroad crossing on Dequindre Street,” recalled City Councilman John C. Lodge. “It was filled with saloons and dives of every degree of villainy, whose operators preyed upon the sailors and others in search of entertainment who were unwary enough to enter the district.” Visitors were on their own in the neighborhood, which was so notorious the police department assigned only one officer to patrol it.

As expected, there was an influx of out-of-town prostitutes and other criminal types. One high-ranking police official warned that he had issued orders for his men to “run in every pickpocket, gambler, confidence man, sneak thief, porch climber, and burglar they see, whether they are working or not. I shall keep them locked up until after the exposition closes and photograph them for the rogues’ gallery. It is cheaper for the city to board them than to arrest them after they have committed a crime. Their friends can habeas corpus them as much as they please, but if we are compelled to release them they will be rearrested at once and the same proceedings can be taken over again.”

Law enforcement was a bit wobbly at first, with a night watchman (an ex-policeman) fired after he was caught pilfering merchandise from the Newcomb-Endicott exhibit the night before the fair’s opening. That same evening, unknown persons sneaked onto the flatcar containing an out-of-state exhibitor’s collection of West Indies coconut and banana trees and picked them clean of fruit. But after a few days, the sheriff in charge of the 70 uniformed officers assigned to the exposition grounds was able to report a quiet time of it. “Everybody seems to be on his good behavior,” the sheriff noted. “If there is a pickpocket or crook of any kind on the grounds, the detectives have been unable to find him.”

Looking to capitalize on interest created in their goods at the exposition, business owners extended promotional offers and their hours. Mabley’s was typical, hosting free balcony concerts and stereoptican exhibitions at its stores every evening. Tobacco merchants displayed the greatest flair for publicity. The cigar store of J. S. Thompson & Bros. on Woodward near City Hall, attracted large crowds by displaying what appeared to be a wooden Indian in its front window; closer examination revealed the figure seated in full paint and feathers was a living, breathing being. Moebs & Co. took a considerably more animated approach, having a circus performer in a tin Roman helmet steer a white chariot, drawn by four black horses, to promote its Ben-Hur brand of cigars.

The main exhibit hall and art gallery were the handiwork of young architect Louis Kamper, who would go on to design Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel in 1924.

Professor J.C. Chambers invited fairgoers to drop in at the Electric Sanitarium and Institute on Washington Boulevard for a free treatment. The professor, whose advertisements cited no credentials beyond noting that he had “spent one-quarter of a century relieving suffering humanity,” employed a patented apparatus “whereby the Galvanic, Magnetic, and Electric induced currents are quickly infused all through the system.” This, he claimed, enabled him to cure such varied cases as “brain exhaustion,” kidney troubles, memory loss, headaches, impotence, and back pain, as well as “threatening insanity, blood poisoning, and skin diseases of any kind.”

At Detroit’s leading theater, the Wonderland, proprietor M.S. Robinson promised fair patrons “Everything New and Startling for Exposition Week!” The imported freak show featured Miss Ida Williams, who was billed as “Mammoth, Mountainous, Half a Ton of Womanly Loveliness,” and a boxing match between a 490-pound man (“A Human Jumbo!”) and a bladelike 49-pounder (“A Giant of Lankiness!”).

There was no such concept as political correctness then, so any arguments over having similar circus-style sideshows on the exposition grounds centered on money, not sensitivity. Fairgoers grumbled about spending an extra quarter after paying to enter the grounds. An elderly hermit farmer with a straw hat and a long flowing beard, identified as “Uncle Josh” in the newspapers, made the trip from Washtenaw County to Detroit for the first time in 20 years. “Ain’t yer ashamed of yerself,” he yelled while wagging an old umbrella at a sideshow attendant, “ter charge people wots paid money ter get in here?”

Exposition managers, looking to avoid too much criticism, limited the number of sideshows and offered their own free museum. Featured were a working miniature harbor and train yard with stuffed and live birds, a magician, and a card-playing pig. The most popular act was Professor Woodward and his trained seals and sea lions, one of which had suffered severe injuries when it jumped out of a moving train in Indiana while trying to escape six weeks earlier. Like a true trouper, though, the battered sea lion joined its companions in putting on first-rate shows daily. Their tank required a barrel of salt and a ton of ice each day to keep the water in good condition.

Another popular attraction was Fiji Jim, who was either a cannibal or a warrior, or both, depending on the individual fairgoer sizing him up. A genuine Fiji Islander whose real name was Ruto Sernm, he had been lured to the States by a circus promoter who soon abandoned him. Fiji Jim was working sideshows in a futile attempt to make enough money to return home. He was destined to die seven years later inside a freezing Brooklyn flat, having caught pleurisy after saving a swimmer from drowning.

At one point, a troublemaker leaned over and whispered a few words to Annie, the woman advertised as Fiji Jim’s wife. Whatever was said was enough to stir the bushy-haired, gaudily painted woman out of character. “If yese waz in Boofalow,” she exclaimed in an Irish brogue, “yese wouldn’t dare to tawk loike that to me at all.” As the crowd laughed and Fiji Jim scowled, Annie stopped shaking her fist and resumed her role as a submissive native of the Fiji Islands.

George Bailey of Buffalo, N.Y., was press superintendent of that city’s annual exposition. His expert opinion about fairs was sought by reporters and officials. He had just returned from the Paris world’s fair, which was winding down its six-month run, and he was determined to say nothing but good things about Detroit’s exposition in comparison. “In your show of horses, cattle, swine, and agricultural implements,” he said, “the Detroit is superior to the Paris exposition.”

Bailey was fascinated with the Eiffel Tower, which had been built as the gateway to the Paris fair and was the tallest structure on Earth. “I really think that the erection of a similar tower at the Detroit exposition would be a practical undertaking and a very lucrative one,” he said. He figured one could be built for $500,000 and was convinced this “marvelous attraction” would be “one of the permanent sights of Detroit.” If an Eiffel Tower could not be built here,

Bailey offered a downsized alternative. “I think a captive balloon capable of holding 18 or 20 people would prove a great attraction.”

That very day, 3,000 people arched their necks to watch Professor C. Bartholomew — the seemingly suicidal balloonist and parachutist — perform trapeze tricks while ascending into the overcast sky in his hot-air balloon. He was still recovering from a recent bad fall where he had bounced off a building in Australia. However, the daredevil aeronaut insisted the show must go on. When he reached an altitude of 9,000 feet, he climbed out of the basket and jumped into the clouds. The professor missed the exposition grounds completely but landed without mishap on the outskirts of Windsor. “I have looked down upon a great many cities,” he said upon his return, “but I have never seen a prettier city than Detroit.”

The exposition’s final day was Sept. 27, a wet Friday. For two weeks, the city’s four daily newspapers had been filled with items such as this: “Charles Grant of Thornburg, Ont., made Michigan farmers’ eyes bulge out with his elegant display of grains and seeds.” Now it was time to close the gates and the books. Despite the regularly inclement weather, between 20,000 and 37,000 people had visited the fair each day. Total attendance topped 300,000.

Detroit’s big show ended with a big bang. When a battery of cannons punctuated a martial tune that final afternoon, the explosions caused people in the main building to come tumbling out the doors, most thinking the roof or a tower had given way. “A force of waiters employed in the exposition restaurant, wearing white aprons and tall, round hats, rushed out of the restaurant and across the open space toward the river as if pursued by fiends,” a bemused witness reported. “At their head was a jolly little red-faced man with short, stubby legs. His hat was set back on his head and as he ran his white apron fluttered in the breeze like a signal of distress.”

The fair, which returned a $5,000 profit to its investors, was viewed by some upbeat supporters as proof that Detroit could handle the Columbian Exposition, the world’s fair being planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. However, the city was never a serious contender. Congress accepted Chicago’s bid over those of New York and St. Louis. Detroit assumed its more familiar role as foundry to pre-automobile America, with the star attraction of the 1893 Columbian Exposition — George Ferris’ massive passenger wheel — being built largely in its shops.

The Detroit International Fair & Exposition continued as an annual affair for three more years, always turning a small profit, before the land was sold to the Solvay Process Co. With that, the heavy industrialization of that section of southwest Detroit began. Delray was incorporated into Detroit in 1906. A century later, it’s a toxic landscape of smokestacks and blown-out houses with the bleakest future of any neighborhood in the city. Such decline would have been unthinkable to the exhibitors and fairgoers of 1889, when all the talk was about the community’s rapid progress and its boundless potential. The “promoters of this enterprise have scored a proud triumph,” the Tribune trumpeted the day Detroit first threw open its gates to tomorrow, “and secured permanently to Detroit an institution that will add to her fair fame and prosperity through all time to come.