During the summer of 1893, tens of thousands of Michiganians headed to Chicago to enjoy a giant fair that marked the 400th anniversary of the European discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. (Although the Italian explorer had “sailed the ocean blue” 401 years earlier, the fair was not ready to open in 1892.)
Called the Columbian Exposition, the international fair was an opportunity for Americans to show off their greatness. As one Michiganian wrote, “The world is coming to see us, and we must put on our good clothes.”
The exposition opened on May 1, 1893. For the next six months, millions of visitors (eventually 27 million) toured thousands of exhibits from nineteen nations and thirty-nine states, including Michigan. The exhibits were housed in sixteen huge halls that were built on land seven miles south of Chicago’s Loop. Outside the exhibit halls, visitors were entertained by a variety of shows along the Midway Palisance, a mile-long strip that included the world’s first Ferris wheel.
To showcase our state, Michigan built a massive, three-story, wooden house. The Michigan Building, which visitors remembered as “homelike” with “genuine, broad gauge hospitality,” offered a large open porch where visitors could sit and rest, and a ladies’ parlor that gained a reputation as a “most exquisite work.”
In addition to the Michigan Building, many other Michigan exhibits were scattered about the fair. More than three thousand examples of Michigan wood and wooden products could be found in the Forestry Building. These included a full-sized replica of a logging camp and a sleigh carrying eighteen-foot-long white pine logs.
Michigan farmers filled the Palace of Agriculture with more than five thousand samples of farm products. Paw Paw’s David Woodman, who plaited cornhusks and corn ears into a full-sized, four-person family, surely created one of the fair’s most unique exhibits!
In the Mines and Minerals Buildings, visitors saw two massive pieces of native copper and a cross-section of an iron mine that stood ten feet high. Michigan’s mineral exhibits received more awards than any other state.
Samples of Michigan furniture from the nation’s furniture capital (Grand Rapids) could be found in the Manufacturing and Liberal Arts Building. Elsewhere in this forty-acre building, Michigan State College students exhibited models of animal skeletons, while only Harvard University displayed more educational exhibits than the University of Michigan. Other exhibits in the fair’s biggest structure included ladies corsets from Jackson, long underwear from Ypsilanti, “friable” pills from Kalamazoo and “fiendish exercise inventions” from Battle Creek’s Sanitarium.
When the Columbian Exposition closed in October 1893, most of the buildings were destroyed. The Michigan Building was sold for scrap. Fortunately, many of Michigan’s exhibits found new homes, although their whereabouts today are generally unknown.
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