Looking Back

Remembering the World’s Fair

Organizers had hoped for a healthy profit; well, what they got was a tidy sum of $57

Larry Bowers Banner Staff Writer
Posted 2/3/16

It was 1982 when the world came to Tennessee. May 1, 2016, will be the 34-year anniversary of perhaps the biggest event ever held in the state.

While No. 34 doesn’t necessarily carry the glamour …

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Looking Back

Remembering the World’s Fair

Organizers had hoped for a healthy profit; well, what they got was a tidy sum of $57

Posted

It was 1982 when the world came to Tennessee. May 1, 2016, will be the 34-year anniversary of perhaps the biggest event ever held in the state.

While No. 34 doesn’t necessarily carry the glamour and glitter of a silver or gold anniversary, it does point to this reality: Has it really been almost 3 1/2 decades since Tennesseans were getting a whole new perspective on the world, and vice versa?

My, my. How time flies!

I remember the period well, and the prior two to three years. I was executive editor of the Gatlinburg Press and Sevierville News-Record, two newspapers in Sevier County.

I had recently remarried, had qualified for one of the final Southern Appalachian Golf Tournaments with Archie “Grandpappy” Campbell at Holston Hills Golf and County Club, and was preparing to take my new family to a new corporate job in Del Rio, Texas.

My friendship with Campbell developed in the 1970s and ’80s, primarily because of golf. The singer, actor and comedian was much like late Bradley Central basketball coach Jim Smiddy in their love for the game.

There was also the fact my mother and Archie were acquainted during their high school days. My mom attended St. James High School in east Greene County, while Archie was at Bulls Gap High School between Greeneville and Morristown.

From 1980 through the start of 1982, there was a lot on my plate. The biggest community event was final preparations for the opening of the World’s Fair, formally known as the “Knoxville International Energy Exposition.”

The theme of the exposition was "Energy Turns the World."

Organizers of the fair, from Knoxville banker Jake Butcher on down, spent a lot of time in the resort areas of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg where I worked, compiling ideas on how to handle the anticipated crowds at the fair.

The World’s Fair eventually had more than 11 million visitors.

The appeal of the expedition was worldwide. It had visitors from Hungary, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States and West Germany.

And, who can forget all the planning and construction, during the fair and after? At yard sales, flea markets and auctions, I often run into keepsakes which were given away, or purchased, at the World’s Fair.

Ironically, I never attended the actual fair. I, and my family, had moved to Texas before the event really got going. But, I did attend a number of pre-Fair events and attempted to keep up with the event after I had moved to Southwest Texas.

Although there was wide speculation about the ability of Knoxville to host the fair, and a huge cost to the state for interstate highway improvements around the city, the 1982 World’s Fair actually recorded a profit.

It was only $57, but it was a profit. That may cause you to shake your head, considering the billions of dollars actually spent.

Organizers had anticipated a $5 million surplus, and the city of Knoxville ended up $46 million in debt.

When speculating prior to the venture, one national publication called Knoxville “a scruffy little city,” and asked how it could consider sponsoring a World’s Fair.

Knoxville and East Tennessee made it happen, although the end results were less than mind-boggling.

Many of the features constructed for the fair are still around. Probably the most visible is the Sunsphere, a 266-foot steel tower topped with a five-story gold globe. To this day, it remains somewhat of a symbol for the city of Knoxville.

Did you realize a number of new inventions were unveiled at the Knoxville World’s Fair? They include touch-screen display and Tetra Pak boxed, shelf-stable milk.

The fair was constructed on a 70-acre site between downtown Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. The core of the site primarily consisted of a deteriorating Louisville and Nashville Railroad yard and depot. The railroad yard was demolished, with the exception of a single rail line, and the depot was renovated into a restaurant.

In 2007, the East Tennessee Historical Society opened an exhibit commemorating the 25th anniversary of the World's Fair.

According to Wikipedia, “the idea for a World's Fair in Knoxville came from the example of Spokane, Wash., which hosted a World's Fair in 1974. W. Stewart Evans, president of the Downtown Knoxville Association, came up with the idea of hosting a fair in Knoxville and presented it to the city government.

“Knoxville Mayor Kyle Testerman appointed banker Jake Butcher to lead an exploratory committee on the fair, and Butcher served as the driving force behind the fair. Within the city, many people referred to the event as ‘Jake’s Fair.’ The organizing body was the Knoxville Foundation Inc.”

The 1982 event was the second Worlds Fair to be held in Tennessee. The state’s first was the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897, held in Nashville.

A lot of interesting things happened. A mummy was unwrapped and studied at the fair, and an Egyptian exhibit featured ancient artifacts valued at more than $30 million U.S. dollars.

Hungary, the home country of the Rubik’s Cube, sent a large, automated Rubik’s Cube with rotating squares for the entrance to its pavilion. The cube is still present in downtown Knoxville, where it has been displayed in the lobby of the Holiday Inn World’s Fair Park.

As part of the hoopla, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots played a preseason NFL game at Neyland Stadium, and the Steelers 24–20.

There were many problems. Jake Butcher's United American Bank failed the year after the fair (on Feb. 14, 1983, and there was speculation the failure was due in part to his financing of the World's Fair).

Much of the fair site was demolished, but there have been lingering memories across the state, such as the yard-sale items I mentioned above.

In 1996, Knoxville and the World’s Fair figured prominently in an episode of “The Simpsons.” In the episode, Bart Simpson and his friends travel to Knoxville to visit the fair, only to be disappointed to learn of its closure 14 years earlier. Also in the episode, the apparently unstable Sunsphere topples to the ground after Bart’s friend Nelson hits it with a rock.

The non-cartoon Sunsphere’s observation deck reopened to the public in 2007, allowing visitors to look out over “what was” 25 years before.

We can now look out over “what was” almost 34 years later.

Like I said, 34 doesn’t have the glamour of a 25 or a 50, but then again, it’s just a number. But it sparks a whole lot of memories — for anybody who ever attended, or who had anything to do with, Knoxville’s biggest celebration ever.

There’s another reason I write today about the 34th. I didn’t want to wait for 35.

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