1893 Columbian Exposition: World’s Fair Highlighted Agriculture in America

The 1893 Columbian Exposition shone a spotlight on agriculture in America.

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by William E. Cameron
A contemporary drawing meant to convey the spirit of the 1893 world's fair, the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago. The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition published in 1893 by A.B. Kuhlman & Co., Chicago; colorized

Starting in about 1888, the idea took shape of staging a world’s fair in the U.S. to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

Cities such as Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Washington and Minneapolis vied for the honor and prestige of hosting the event. In February 1890, the U.S. House of Representatives met to decide the issue after months of intense lobbying by the hopefuls. It took eight ballots, but Chicago at last won the majority of votes and was declared the site of the Columbian Exposition.

City within a city

The site chosen was called Jackson Park, a mostly wild and unimproved area of 586 acres in southeastern Chicago along Lake Michigan. Ground was broken on Jan. 27, 1891. Two years later, on May 1, 1893, after many trials, tribulations and disagreements, President Grover Cleveland opened the grand exposition with much pomp, ceremony and oratory. The highlight of the ceremony came when President Cleveland pressed a gold telegraph key on the table in front of him. The key completed an electrical circuit activating a device called an “Electro-Automatic Engine Stop and Starter,” which caused a big Allis steam engine and Worthington pump to start up in Machinery Hall. The pump caused several huge fountains to spurt columns of water high in the air to the strains of the national anthem and the boom of guns from the warship USS Michigan, anchored nearby in Lake Michigan.

The exposition grounds included 400 buildings in addition to statues, fountains, basins and waterways, paved roads and paths (all impeccably landscaped), at a cost of more than $20 million (nearly $500 million today). More than 50,000 exhibitors came from almost every country in the world. Daily admission of 50 cents (about $12 today) gave entry to all exhibits, although photography was tightly restricted. A $2 permit was required to take a camera on the grounds (and no tripods were allowed); photography was prohibited in some buildings.

Dizzying array of exhibits

There were many, many interesting agricultural exhibits at the exposition, but one stands out in an account in The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition by William E. Cameron: a gigantic cheese – “weighing 26,000 pounds, standing 6 feet high and 9 feet in diameter” – that was part of the Canadian agricultural exhibit. A contemporary description reads, “To the construction of this monster 10,000 cows have contributed their lacteal bounty,” and “the mice of the universe might nibble (on the cheese) for years without making a material impression.”

At the south end of the grounds, facing a large basin of water, was the 500- by 750-foot Agricultural Building. Behind that was a 300- by 550-foot annex in which farm machinery exhibits were located. I can find no complete list of manufacturers who displayed their wares, but I’d imagine it would include most all of those then in existence.

An account in the Aug. 24, 1893, issue of Farm Implement News gushes: “The most complete and magnificent display of farm implements and machines that the world has ever seen is now being made in the Implement Annex at the great fair. It is a show of the latest and most improved machinery finished and decorated like objects of art and placed like jewels in the most attractive settings.”

Jewels indeed! Dowagiac (Mich.) Mfg. Co. exhibited a “magnificent 22-shoe, 4-horse Dowagiac drill,” according to Farm Implement News. “The seed box is of Tennessee whitewood and the frame of ash, both given a mirror-like polish, and the iron work glistens in burnished nickel plating.” Adriance, Platt & Co., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., showed a rear discharge grain binder described by Farm Implement News: “The woodwork is in polished ash relieved by vermilion lines and pen decoration. The heavy iron work, that is, the wheel, frame and gear, are painted stone green, and the tips, rims or edges, small irons and levers, and the finger bar are nickel plated.” Haworth & Sons, Decatur, Ill., exhibited an all-steel check-row corn planter entirely finished in “glistening nickel plate.”

Plow crafted from historic relics

Another exhibit of note was “the Largest Wagon in the World” built by the Moline (Ill.) Wagon Co. This giant 3-box farm wagon was 42 feet long, 16 feet high and held 640 bushels of grain. (Or was it? Read more about the world’s largest wagon on Sam Moore’s blog, “World’s Largest Wagon at the Turn of the Century.”) Deere & Co. was commissioned to build the Columbian Peace Plow, which was constructed using donated historical artifacts. The share, frog, moldboard and standard were cast from donated coins, medals, swords and bayonets – turning swords into plowshares.

The wooden beam and handles were decorated with various pieces of wood, a partial list of which includes wood from old Fort Duquesne, the original floor of Independence Hall, a house in which George Washington once lived, and the USS Ranger (the first ship to carry the American flag and commanded by John Paul Jones). The different woods were used to create 24 inlay patterns representing the American flag, stars, arrowheads, eagles and, of course, Deere’s famous leaping deer.

Not without conflict

There was a big controversy over implement field trials. At first, manufacturers were told that there would be none. Then, in July, when the powers-that-be changed their minds and announced trials would begin in two weeks, everyone complained because they hadn’t been given enough notice. Many manufacturers boycotted the trials and the ones that did participate accused the judges of favoritism. However, static machinery displays were also judged, so it seems that there were probably enough awards to go around, although there was much grumbling.

One of the grumblers was Otto Armleder & Co., Cincinnati, which displayed a line of milk and grocery delivery wagons. That company claimed that the judge spent two weeks looking at the Studebaker wagon exhibit and one week at the Racine Wagon & Carriage exhibit, but only 10 minutes on the Armleder products. As it turned out, the judge was a former Studebaker employee then working for the Racine firm, so there may have been some justification in the complaints.

By the time the Columbian Exposition closed on Oct. 30, 1893, more than 27 million people had passed through the gates and the event was considered a huge success. FC

Read more about world’s fairs: “World’s Fairs Showcase March of Progress.”

Reference source: The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition, William E. Cameron, published in 1893 by A.B. Kuhlman & Co., Chicago.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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