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Notes on the Centennial Conservation Expo

Saturday's Centennial Conservation Expo celebrated the 100th anniversary of one of the biggest events in Knoxville history, the National Conservation Exposition. It was the world's first-ever conservation exposition, and some have argued it was the first big fair that was mostly about the future. A million people attended, and Google's ngram search feature suggests it got more national press in its day than did the 1982 World's Fair later did. But after World War I, the conservation exposition was almost completely forgotten, even in its host city.

Heritage isn't always obviously useful, but the National Conservation Exposition is something we ought to own. We're still dealing with a lot of the same problems, concerning loss of natural resources, and the memory of that big fair proves that what we now call "sustainable" or "green" is part of Knoxville's makeup.

A high point was the opening, when, sandwiched by a teenage barbershop quartet, an extraordinary rostum unlike any other assembled before a good-natured crowd of about 100. Madeline Rogero was there, and spoke briefly about the broadening concept of conservation, which a century later has come to apply to historic preservation and the modern green initiatives her administration emphasizes. She introduced the guest of the day, keynote speaker Leila Pinchot, a recent UT Ph.D. graduate who happens to be the great-granddaughter of groundbreaking conservationist Gifford Pinchot, the national figure who was right here 100 years ago, because he was the director of the 1913 fair.

Other speakers included, in flowing white beard, antlers, and astrological robes, the Prophet of the Smokies, returned for the first time we know of in 97 years. He entered the city earlier that morning, as he always did in the days of the crafts fairs of the Victorian era, walking alone across the Gay Street Bridge. He bore a remarkable resemblance, I thought, to author/actor/barkeep Stephen Dupree, who showed up at the Expo soon after the Prophet departed.

Then Teddy Roosevelt, or a fellow who looks a whole lot like him, gave a spirited talk probably not unlike the one TR himself gave at this part more than a century ago. There was going to be a TR-lookalike contest, but it just happened that a nationally known Teddy Roosevelt impersonator, Case Hicks, lives in town. And there was the late Mayor Sam Heiskell, better dressed than any of the other dignitaries, who admitted he rarely gets away from Old Gray. He resembles local actor Vania Smrkovski.

At one point, three of the five people on the rostrum were in disguise. You don't see that at every public event. Dr. Leila Pinchot, an expert on chestnut blight, took it all in good humor, but gave a forceful and pretty serious address on the subject of protecting the environment, emphasizing the dangers of global warming. She gave the talk standing by the lake, more or less the same one her great-grandfather knew, facing the hill topped by the only architectural relic of the exposition era, the old marble bandstand.

After that, the festival was mostly about the booths up in the Jacob Building, and the bands, and actiivities for the kids, including the giant pneumatic-rubber attractions kids have come to expect everywhere they go. The nearby Kerr Building offered some Golden Gloves sparring, appropriate for the festival more for the era than for the conservation theme.

The Jacob Building's indoor attractions were thoughtfully laid out, with a cleanly striking presentation of photographs of the 1913 fair itself, and an especially well-produced brochure about it all; every Knoxvillian should have a copy. There to speak to the public were a lot of people there who knew a lot about several urgently important subjects: about canning, about planting trees, about clean water, about recycling.

Most of it was thoughtful, earnest, helpful, if not quite solemn. There, comfortably dressed for a sunny day in 1913, was the Rev. James Randolph Denton, who resembles UT printmaking Prof. Beavais Lyons, presenting his Creative Zoology, with prints and specimens in jars of never-before-seen creatures.

I haven't heard any expressions of disappointment in the event, but it looked to me like they were prepared for about 10 or 20 times the crowd that showed up for it. People came, but when I left at about halfway through, the participants outnumbered the attendees.

The Expo faced several challenges. During its early planning, it was plotted for a Saturday in October, to coincide with the anniversary of the 1913 exposition, and on a day when nothing else was scheduled for the park. Organizers didn't realize that, aided by the fact that it was the no-football-game day, it would turn out to be one of the most festival-heavy days in Knoxville history. (Full disclosure, I attended a couple of early planning meetings, and didn't think about that likely problem, myself--though I've complained about the impossibility of Non Game Day for years.)

They were up against some of the biggest contenders that ever visit on a Saturday. Some of the metro area's other events served massive quantities of beer or spectacle--booming cannons in a re-enactment, flying anvils, a first-ever outdoor-adventure race so grueling it was too much for some seasoned athletes, plus a legendary rock band.

This one didn't serve beer or spectacle; it served mainly good ideas. There's never been a better-intended festival, but maybe earnestness is likely to be a challenge in itself.  
There were other frustrations. Back in February, the only structure that remains from the 1910-13 exposition era, the marble bandstand, was fenced off, under renovation, and planners were hoping it would be finished and open in time to be a centerpiece of the Expo. It's been open and used for dozens of Tennessee Valley fairs in recent memory, if generally ignored in a park full of bright lights and loud noises. As recently as last month, there was some hope that the old marble structure might be ready for this first and perhaps only event planned to celebrate its era. If it had, it would have been a worthy centerpiece for the Expo, and something to publicize; but it was not. The bandstand was built in just a few days, but renovating it is somehow turning into a years-long project.
The old lake, the park's main attraction for the last 130 years, was originally pictured as a recreation attraction for boating and even paddleboarding. But a couple of weeks before the event, it was unexpectedly declared off limits due to fecal contamination from the ducks that live there. Other suggested sporting events proved unworkable for one reason or another.
An even less-expected disappointment was also one of the biggest: the federal shutdown. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were involved in the planning of the Expo, and two of its biggest participants. They were completely absent.
Chilhowee Park itself is kind of a heartbreaking problem. It's Knoxville's oldest and most historic park, with lots of appeal, on paper: that nice big pond, practically a lake that's pretty, whether it's safe or not; the park's adjacent to the biggest zoo in the region; it has lots of large and pretty trees, and multiple built amenities, like an amphitheater and a pretty huge and versatile enclosed main building. The Jacob Building, a utilitarian replacement for the old exposition hall that used to stand there, is better-looking than it used to be.
But this park's mostly paved with asphalt marked for surface parking. Maybe that's useful perhaps for some indoor-oriented events like gun shows (but why do you need to come to a big park for an indoor event?), and also for the giant rides and food trailers required for some monster events like the Tennessee Valley Fair. But as one participant remarked, as a park, Chilhowee's not a place you want to hang out with your kids on a Saturday afternoon; it has all the appeal of a big parking lot.

Most suburbanites are afraid of Chilhowee Park, because it's in East Knoxville. But judging by several free events I've attended there in recent years, East Knoxvillians are rarely tempted by it, either. I don't know what the answer is.

Another participant disappointed in the turnout mentioned that it's always a challenge to start a new festival. The Centennial Conservation Expo was never advertised as anything but a one-off sort of event, but maybe, with some tweaks, it should be an annual thing.
But the best-intended events are rarely the best-attended ones. It's a human truth that's often frustrating, and sometimes tragic. The more important any subject is, the less immediately attractive it is, the less exciting, the less fun. We don't have time for important things on a sunny Saturday.

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