Lessons of the Past
Within months Augusta’s new Trade Exhibit and Event (TEE) Center now under construction on Reynolds Street will be completed, a monument to Augusta’s hopes for larger conventions, shows and events in the Garden City. Able to seat up to 1,800 for banquets and 3,500 theater style, the center reflects the community’s great expectations for tourists and visitors. What many may not know is that almost 125 years ago Augustans opened another grand center with similar dreams and aspirations—the Exposition complex of 1888.
In the fall of 1887, Augustans began to discuss the idea of holding a grand exposition the following year, perhaps on the fairgrounds. After all, Atlanta had led the way, first in 1881 and again that fall, and the benefits had been enormous. Augusta, too, wanted to highlight its New South accomplishments. The idea caught fire and, within days, leading Augustans expressed interest in taking stock in such an enterprise. The exposition was not only to bring people to the town, but it was also to show the state and nation “what we have and what we are doing.” Those behind the movement believed that even Augustans themselves would be surprised.
The idea began as Southern Manufacturer’s expo showing all the products of “the mill, the shop and the fields, the richness of our mines, and the skills of our mechanics, artisans, and artists.” The event would be a demonstration of “Southern Progress in every field of industry and skill.” A week after the first rumors appeared in The Augusta Chronicle, an announcement informed the public that a meeting would be held to organize a “grand exposition, encampment and trade review.” Word spread rapidly beyond Augusta’s borders and, before the organizational meeting, newspapers including the Charleston News and Courier and Philadelphia Times endorsed the effort.
The meeting on November 8 was a great success and included Augustans from every part of the city and every walk of life. The town went to work. Young men formed a group to raise funds. Workingmen expressed their support and subscriptions came from mill workers and machine shops employees. Mail carriers held a benefit dance. Ladies planned a grand bazaar. The musically talented organized a glee club for the exposition. African American citizens attended the meeting and pledged the funds to be raised, saying they “favored the movement by our white fellow citizens.” In early December leaders of the black community met at the office of Judson W. Lyons Esq. and drew up a plan of cooperation. Columbia County said it would aid “with all in her power.” This unity of purpose remained a constant over the next months and proved the key component to success.
Committees began to work. One took proposals for a site, while the canvass committee vowed to see every person in the city so all would have the chance to participate. By the end of December, a petition for incorporation went to the Superior Court. The name requested showed that this event was no longer envisioned as an exhibit of Southern wares—it would be The Augusta National Exposition Company. The board of directors included James Tobin, who became president of the enterprise, Clement A. Evans, Glascock Barrett, Jacob Phinizy, George B. Lombard, Sandford Cohen, Charles Phinizy, P. G. Burum and other well-known community leaders.
The ambitious goal was to “establish and conduct an exposition for fostering, building up and developing commerce, industry, mechanics, education, agriculture, horticulture, livestock, science and art, and such other matters as may be properly germane.” Shares were $5 each and the company was capitalized at $50,000 and could go up $500,000. A board of 25 directors would oversee the business. At a meeting in early January the Executive, Finance, Building and Grounds, Transportation, Public Comfort, Receptions, Special Attractions, Publication and Publicity, Awards, and Installation of Exhibits committees began their work.
On January 17, the dates of the grand show were announced: Wednesday, October, 10, 1888, through Saturday, November 30—dates that would “secure the cream of Indian summer.” On January 28, just two months after the idea had been floated, Druid Park became the location; it could be reached by road, the Georgia Railroad with its nearby Harrisonville yards and streetcars. Both city and county pledged to have the streets in first-class condition. By that time, with no ground yet broken, space had already been spoken for by both local and distant exhibitors. “Now let us round up the best exposition the South has ever seen.”
From their headquarters in the 700 block of Broad Street, the directors and their committees worked for the next 10 months to do just that. Ground clearing and preparation began in February and construction on the building in early April. Even these preparations drew steady crowds throughout the spring and summer.
As October neared, the excitement mounted. Then on September 10, disaster struck. Augusta experienced the worst flood in almost 50 years—“every street and canal and every store drenched.” Enterprise, Sibley and King mills were all flooded. The Exposition site itself was dry, but the streets and bridges as well as hotels, restaurants and stores downtown were all damaged. In an amazing show of sacrifice and determination, the citizens agreed to a one percent tax on all property to raise funds for the necessary repairs. On September 18, the announcement went out: The show would go on, just a little later than planned—November 8 to December 15. The organizers feared that impediments to travel might have affected Northern exhibitors and they wanted the confidence of visitors from the North and West.
By late September exhibits began to arrive including a 60-ton passenger locomotive from Rhode Island that had to be lifted from the railroad tracks and moved into the building. Throughout September and October, repairs continued, exhibits arrived and upcoming events were advertised. In late October, Mayor Robert May sent out a request to every business asking that they close for the grand opening: “Let us all then, fellow, citizens, laying aside all business and work on the 8th of November unite at the Exposition grounds.”
“Today! Augusta Triumphant over all Obstacles,” proclaimed the headlines of The Augusta Chronicle on November 8. “Today arrayed in holiday attire, and her brow adorned with victorious garlands, Augusta flings open wide her gates to the peoples of the world, and bids all welcome to the rich feast she has spread for their entertainment.” Large crowds followed the parade from downtown as the New York 7th Regimental Band, escorted by the Richmond Hussars, played a march written especially for the occasion. They heard the Exposition Chorus sing Gounod’s “Unfold Ye Portals,” listened intently to the Honorable J.C.C. Black’s opening address as he exhorted, “Let us take our rightful place in the grand procession and from this grand hour know no word but forward.” Then Governor John B. Gordon’s wife pushed an electric button on the podium and “in an instant the gongs and machinery had clanged in response, the steam whistles screamed and the cannon without thundered in joyous acclaim.” What an incredible display it must have been considering that Edison had founded his electric company only a decade before.
For the next several weeks, Augustans and visitors from throughout the country saw exhibits that ran the gamut—from the latest machinery and other inventions to guano, beer and whiskey to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), glassblowing to furniture, East India articles to South Carolina pottery and so much more. There was an ice cream and cake area, and a Japanese tea area among others. In addition to the exhibit areas, the Exposition Hall had a large restaurant as well as a Music Hall, a one-mile racetrack, a grandstand, stables, poultry house and other outbuildings.
Neighboring Southern states had specific spaces for exhibits as did Richmond, Columbia and other Georgia counties. Special days were set aside to highlight the accomplishments of various groups: African Americans, women, the military, cotton manufacturers, national manufacturers, farmers, horticulturalists, drummers (traveling salesmen) and others. There were special shows of dogs, poultry and other animals. Horse races, a bicycle tournament, musical concerts, a carnival and many other events brought people back day after day. On November 21, 7,000 turned out for the evening fireworks, which included Niagara Falls in lights and the image of Exposition President James Tobin’s face.
December 18 was the final day. The grounds opened as usual at 8:30 a.m. and visitors could get a last look at exhibits. The closing ceremony at 1 p.m. included a valedictory address and response, a farewell luncheon followed by a grand race and that evening fireworks. At the very end, everything on the grounds “capable of noise” offered one “great shout of applause at the good work” that had been accomplished.
As the exhibits and people left, the assessment began. The last days had been bitter cold and attendance suffered. Numbers from Florida during the exposition had been low due to a yellow fever epidemic and quarantine there. In spite of these setbacks, the crowds had been good and receipts paid for the actual exposition ($75,000). At the time, they didn’t calculate economic impact, but merchants reported that trade was up and brisk. The receipts and subscriptions did not, however, raise enough money to pay off the $109,497 (multi-millions in today’s currency depending on the calculation used) spent for the grounds and buildings, leaving a debt of around $65,000. The general consensus was that the property should be preserved and another exposition should be held in the future.
The directors and other leaders began looking for ways to pay off the property. In the end a new Augusta Exposition Company organized to buy the property of the Augusta National Exposition Company. Stockholders in the old company were given first right of refusal for stock in the new and most took advantage of the offer; a majority of the new company members had held stock in the old. After paying the debt of the old company, the Augusta Exposition Company owned the property including the buildings, which were worth more than the $65,000 debt. By 1891, with Patrick Walsh at the helm, another grand exposition was in the works. Armed with debt-free property and the experience of one exposition, the community was ready once again.
The 1888 Exposition had, however, accomplished an important goal for Augusta’s economy. It had introduced many visitors to the city’s charms, including the relatively mild winter climate that Augusta had to offer. Some Northern visitors in 1888 had decided to stay in Augusta that winter rather than return to their snowy clime. In February of 1888, as ground was being cleared for the exposition buildings, several Augustans had concluded that the community needed a resort hotel. Dr. William Tutt had bought the estate that sat at the crest of the “Hill” of Summerville, offering a panoramic view of the area. He offered his 21-room house and the land at a cut-rate price for the development of an elegant hotel. Although not open in time for the 1888 exhibition, in December 1889 the grand Bon Air began to welcome tourists and Augusta’s road to becoming a winter resort was paved.
Everyone agreed that Augusta, a city of 46,000, had pulled off a great feat in 1888, especially in light of the flood of September. As the Atlanta Constitution said, Augusta had indomitable heart—“pluck,” one writer called it. As organizers prepared for the 1891 Exposition, they credited the 1888 event with the characteristics of the “new city of today...its united and harmonious people, its improved municipal administration, its awakened public spirit, its new buildings, its growing business, its electric railway and electric lights, its new and increasing values, its flourishing new suburbs, and above all the pervading spirit of public confidence with which its people view the present and hail the future.”
Perhaps there are lessons in the past.