Monday, January 7, 2019

The Tennessee Centennial Expo of 1897

By Michelle Shocklee

When we moved to the Nashville area last year, I never dreamed I'd be transported to Athens, Greece while visiting the downtown area. You can imagine my immense surprise at finding the Parthenon had been moved from Athens to Nashville!

The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee
All kidding aside, I'd never heard of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897 that resulted in impressive new buildings being built, including a replica of the Parthenon. Hundreds of fascinating exhibits provided education and entertainment during the expo, and a new lake was even constructed to offer tranquility to the nearly 1.8 million visitors that came to Nashville over the six-month celebration of the state's 100th birthday.

Maybe some of you aren't familiar with this historical event either, so let me take you on a little tour of the fair and share some interesting tidbits along the way.

J.B. Killebrew, 1871
Beginning in 1892, Douglas Anderson, a Nashville lawyer, sent letters to several influential newspapers arguing for a centennial celebration. The letters caught the attention of J.B. Killebrew, agricultural editor of the Nashville Union & American. A proponent of the "New South," a movement that called for increased immigration to the South, improvement of public education, development of natural resources for industrialization, and the overall improvement of agriculture, Killebrew took the argument for the centennial celebration to the Tennessee General Assembly. After much discussion, an event commemorating Tennessee's 100th anniversary of statehood was planned. Unfortunately, an economic recession, along with disagreements among Tennessee's leaders, resulted in a delay of the opening of the exposition, missing the actual anniversary of statehood, June 1, 1796, by almost a year.

Ad for the expo

At twelve noon on May 1, 1897, President McKinley officially opened the Tennessee Centennial Exposition from his office in Washington DC by pressing a button connected by electricity to equipment inside the fair's Machinery Building, setting them and the fair in motion. For the next six months the citizens of Tennessee would celebrate the achievements and history of their beloved state, welcoming guests from around the world. 

A Fine Arts Building was constructed to look like the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. By 1897, Nashville had already become known as "The Athens of the South." It seemed fitting to place the Parthenon replica in the center of the fair grounds. The Parthenon housed 1,175 sculptures, paintings, watercolors, and other art objects, and was one of the most popular exhibits. 

Memphis’s contribution to the Centennial grounds took the shape of the Great Pyramid of
Cheops in Egypt. Memphis looked to its namesake, the ancient city on the Nile, and constructed a building that represented the architecture of Egypt. This reproduction served as the headquarters of both the Memphis and Shelby County delegations.

The Education and Hygiene Building housed some of the most cutting-edge technology to be found at the Exposition. Much of the 420 square feet of this building was dedicated to exhibits sponsored by the University of Tennessee, with X-ray technology at the center. Other schools involved with the building included the University of the South, Cumberland University, Vanderbilt University, and Wellesley College. The Children’s Building housed a model kindergarten, which met throughout the fair season and allowed fairgoers to see this relatively novel form of education put into practice on a daily basis. Children from across the state were selected to participate in the kindergarten at a time when few schools contained such classes.

The Woman’s Building featured displays of domestic arts and home economics and sponsored visiting lectures by Jane Addams and other leaders of the emerging feminist movement. The Negro Building was filled with displays of African American products and educational achievements. Advocates of racial progress and cooperation were invited to address the exposition, and several Negro Days were set aside to honor the free, educated, aspiring “new Negro.” However, the celebration of black progress at the exposition, along with the strict segregation of the races, reflected the paradoxical racial politics of the New South.

The Tennessee Centennial Exposition Grounds

What we might refer to as the “Midway”—the portion of a fair devoted to games, rides, and
other thrills—was known at the Centennial Exposition as “Vanity Fair.” Earlier fairs, like Chicago’s and Paris’s, featured iconic centerpieces--the Ferris Wheel and Eiffel Tower, respectively. Not to be outdone, Tennessee unveiled the Giant See-saw as the centerpiece of Vanity Fair. The 75-feet-high see-saw’s two cars each held 20 people, lifting them high into the air for a panoramic view of the city. The Giant See-saw, however, didn't draw attention to the expo like the Ferris Wheel or the Eiffel Tower. Instead, it was the full-scale replica of the Parthenon that became the symbol of the Centennial, with it's image used on souvenir coins and other memorabilia.

See-saw ride in the Vanity Fair exhibit of the exposition

Over the six months the exposition ran, many cities, states, and organizations adopted days that became known as "theme days." There were days honoring Confederate soldiers, and a day to honor Union veterans. "Colored Employee Day" allowed all the African American employees of the expo to enjoy the day off. Celebrities and politicians visited the Centennial celebration, including President McKinley and his wife. Because they were from Ohio, the Ohio delegation held a grand breakfast in honor of Mrs. McKinley in the Women's Building.  

Today the fairgrounds survive as Centennial Park. The Parthenon, the only remaining structure from the expo, was re-created in the 1920s using permanent materials. It continues to operate as a gallery, featuring a variety of artworks such as paintings from the Hudson River School and local artists, dozens of pieces of sculpture, and a 42-foot gold-plated statue of the goddess Athena. Lake Watauga remains a focal point of Centennial Park. 

If you're ever in the Nashville area, I encourage you to visit Centennial Park and soak in the beauty and the history. If you've already visited it, what was your favorite part?

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill, historical sagas set on a Texas cotton plantation before and after the Civil War. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 31 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. Wow! Sounds like a beautiful place. Thanks for posting.

  2. This is really interesting. I've been to Nashville but I didn't know about Centennial Park. Next time I visit there, I'll be sure to go see the park.

  3. Thank you, Connie & Vickie! Yes, be sure to visit it whenever you're in Nashville! Very cool! :D

  4. One of the main attraction was the BEautiful Jim Key,,the smartest horse in the world...never mentioned....

  5. One of the main attraction was the BEautiful Jim Key,,the smartest horse in the world...never mentioned....