From middling to mighty — State’s hand in World’s Fairs

In 1876, the United States held its first World’s Fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Each state was invited to participate in the United States World’s Fair, and each state funded its own buildings and exhibits. Arkansas’ participation in several United States World’s Fairs provided an opportunity to publicize the state’s achievements and promote settlement.

The Octagon Arkansas Building at the Centennial Exposition was constructed entirely of native Arkansas woods, and a large bronze iron acanthus fountain donated by the Little Rock and Pine Bluff Women’s Centennial Club graces the center of the Octagon Exhibit Room. Thousands of cotton plants were also displayed and visitors took away cotton balls as well as sacks of shelled corn as souvenirs. Iron, zinc, silver, copper, lead, granite, limestone, kaolin clay, coal and many other minerals are on display. The Arkansas Women’s Reception Room displayed photos of prominent Arkansans such as Chester Ashley and Sandy Faulkner, as well as a painting called “The Arkansas Traveler” that was accompanied by the tune “Akansas Traveler” played on a piano.

Although displayed in the Women’s Pavilion rather than the State Fair, the “Dreaming Iolanthe” butter sculpture by Helena resident Caroline Brooks garnered considerable praise and attention. When people began to question its authenticity, she recreated it as a special representation of her technique. Brooks may have inspired future large-scale butter sculptures that appeared at future States and World’s Fairs.

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The Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago in 1893. Although business leaders rallied in 1891 to encourage Arkansas’ participation in the Columbian Exposition, the state legislature did not fund the state fair until 1893 and then appropriated much less than requested. . Jean Loughborough-Douglass designed the state building in what is described as a French Rococo or Renaissance style. In the center of the rotunda’s courtyard, a fountain designed by Sarah Ellsworth of Hot Springs featured local crystals with the fountain basin made of granite from Little Rock. A 14,000-pound piece of zinc from Marion County, 6 feet long and 7 feet wide, is on display in the mine building. One of the exhibits in the state forests was a specimen of oak, claimed to rival the “hooker oak” of California, 125 feet high and 33 feet in girth, a foot from the ground. A large relief map of Arkansas made by State Geologist John C. Branner shows the locations of mineral deposits, timber, grasslands, and swamps, acknowledging the diversity of resources within the state.

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Inspired by the show in Arkansas, the musical DeMoss family wrote the song “My Happy Little Home in Arkansas”. Song described Arkansas as “evergreen” and a place “famous for growing premium apples” and growing cotton, sugar cane and all kinds of grain.

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (aka World’s Fair) in St. Louis celebrated the Louisiana Purchase. Frank W. Gibb of Little Rock designed the state building in the neoclassical style. The Arkansas Mines and Metallurgy exhibit at the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy included aluminum ore, Arkansas bauxite, phosphate rock, coal from the Consolidated Anthracite Coal Company of Spadra, and quartz crystal cases. After the show ended, AF Wolfe purchased the Arkansas building and renovated it in Mount Nord, Fayetteville, to serve as a private residence.

Such exhibitions of “progress” such as the World’s Fairs did not readily include black achievements since emancipation, and blacks fought against discrimination and exclusion from fairs from the beginning. The shows in Arkansas were no different. As reported in the Arkansas Gazette, the State Fair of 1893 featured an educational exhibit featuring student work from Arkansas””colored” schools. The only other reference. State Blacks Directly Involved in Expositions In 1902, the Arkansas Negro Department was formed to represent the black citizens of Arkansas at the upcoming St. Louis Exposition held in the area.

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Arkansas participated in several other expositions on a smaller scale—the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial (New Orleans, 1884–85); Cotton Colonies and International Exposition (Atlanta, 1895); Trans-Mississippi International Exposition (Omaha, 1898); and the Golden Gate International Exposition (San Francisco, 1939)—but these are poorly documented. Arkansas’ participation in another major fair came in 1939 with The World of Tomorrow in New York, but state participation in the fair was funded by individuals and businesses rather than tax dollars. At this show, the state fair focused more on Arkansas life as well as advertising tourism. The state building’s main attractions were two films, “Life in Arkansas” and “Forward Arkansas,” showcasing the state’s resorts, scenery, education, agriculture, sports and fishing, and industrial investment opportunities.

Alana Embry

This story was adapted by Guy Lancaster from the Online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site of


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