It's easy to take the Tennessee Valley Fair for granted. It happens every year, and even if you haven't been there in a long time, it probably looks, sounds, and smells a whole lot like the one you may recall from childhood: the screams from wild rides, the fried food, the carnival games that are never as easy as they look, the dumbfounding magic shows, the daring acrobatics, the tractor pulls, the petting zoo, the livestock competitions, the almost surreal variety of the poultry and rabbit exhibits. This year, there are also motorcyclists who ride on a tightrope across the lake.
But it's an annual tradition with a unique heritage, and it's a bit of a rarity. There are only about 88 fairs like this in America - most cities, even big cities, have nothing like it. But it also has a deep history that may be unlike that of any other.
When you go this year, you'll see the numeral "100" more than once, because this is the 100th Tennessee Valley Fair. A lot of folks - including some famous statesmen, in speeches - have misunderstood that ordinal number, assuming the fair started in 1919. It's not exactly the centennial; this is the 103rd anniversary of the Fair, which started in 1916. The fact the Fair was suspended from 1942 to 1945, during World War II, accounts for the discrepancy.
Either way, it's old, but one thing that makes the Tennessee Valley Fair different from other fairs is that its origin goes back to the Exposition era, which left one interesting relic here.
Chilhowee Park bandstand
From 1910 to 1913, Chilhowee Park was the location for three major expositions, the early ones attended by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The largest of them - the National Conservation Exposition of 1913 - drew progressive speakers including William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, Booker T. Washington, and nationally prominent conservationist Gifford Pinchot, who served as honorary chairman of the exposition. Over its two-month run, the big fair drew over one million people.
The Tennessee Valley Fair, called the East Tennessee Division Fair, when it opened in 1916, wasn't just a coincidence. Many of those involved in starting the modern annual fall fair at Chilhowee Park had been elemental to the success of the Expositions that came before. In fact, history suggests the Tennessee Valley Fair was conceived as a deliberate attempt to maintain the excitement of the grand expositions of 1910-1913. They threw the party on the same site, using many of the same buildings.
As things happen, almost all the buildings built for the expositions vanished many of them accidentally, as the result of fires. The grandest, biggest exposition building of all, the Liberal Arts Building, went up in a spectacular fire in 1938. It was replaced, by the smaller, simple, and more fire-resistant Jacob Building.
The only building at Chilhowee Park that remains from the Exposition Era is one of the smallest. The old marble bandstand, designed by young architect R.F. Graf in 1910, is still there, and sturdier than ever thanks to a city-sponsored restoration project in recent years. It's a lovely remnant of an era when an Italian band would set up here and play waltzes well into the evening, as elegantly dressed Edwardian couples danced. This Saturday, the 14th, at 4:00, it will be the site of a talk by the Knoxville History Project about the dramatic history of this fair that's now well over a century old.
Join the fun at the fair this year until September 15!