This weekend's festival, Earthfest reflects our modern interest in the environment. In its 17th year, it draws bands, vendors, and dozens of exhibitors. It's a modern thing, with modern concerns. But the idea has a good deal of background within Knoxville's kaleidoscopic history.
To begin with, of course, Earthfest is held in World's Fair Park, which has some historical resonance in that regard. Folks of a certain age remember the big hot party for its laser shows, daily parades, Deely Bobbers, and Belgian waffles, the Knoxville World's Fair of 1982 was history's biggest international exposition devoted to promoting clean and sustainable energy, a subject at least as relevant today as it was 34 years ago.
Knoxville has played a role in the national consciousness of the environment. The world's first big exposition devoted to the idea of conserving forests and other national resources was 103 years ago, at East Knoxville's Chilhowee Park. Knoxville's National Conservation Exposition of 1913 drew more than one million visitors from around the country. By then, lecturers had been appearing on Market Square for several years, warning about the rapid loss of East Tennessee's natural resources, and about water and air pollution.
About 10 years after the big exposition, Knoxville was at the vanguard of an extraordinary local movement to start a national park in the Great Smoky Mountains, consistently one of the most popular natural areas in America.
And partly thanks to the brain trust of conservationists invited to Knoxville to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s—including Benton MacKaye, founder of the Appalachian Trail--Knoxville became the epicenter of the national Wilderness Society, and decades later, Knoxvillians like attorney Harvey Broome were involved in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which created a national system to preserve wilderness areas.
Meanwhile, Knoxville native Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970), a University of Tennessee graduate, became one of the nation's groundbreaking environmentalist authors, producing books like The Twelve Seasons (1949) and The Great Chain of Life (1956) promoting the urgency of protecting the natural environment. His older brother, noted photographer Charles Krutch (1887-1981), shared his passion for nature. It was Charles Krutch's bequest that established downtown's Krutch Park.
Even Knoxville native author James Agee raised some national concerns about air pollution in his 1937 feature in Fortune magazine, a long piece called "Smoke."
There's been lots of environmentally bad stuff in Knoxville, too, from the days when Knoxville was infamous for its seemingly permanent coating of soot, and nobody wanted to go near the river because it stank. But we have a right to have fun at Earthfest. It's building on a long tradition.