Remembering The Knoxville World's Fair

  • Saturday, April 28, 2007
  • John Shearer

Twenty-five years ago this Tuesday, the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville opened.

On that Saturday, President Ronald Reagan – who was just a little more than a year removed from surviving an assassination attempt – stood behind a bullet-proof glass enclosure on the grounds and officially dedicated the exposition.

For the next six months, thousands went through the turnstiles to learn about energy and culture in other countries – and how to have a little fun.

Out of curiosity, I went and looked at how the fair was covered in the Chattanooga newspaper in May 1982.

On the Friday before, the newspaper reported that the NBC Today show with Jane Pauley was on hand. Also on the scene were some painters and other workmen, who were feverishly doing some last-minute touch ups.

Fair chairman, banker and former politician Jake Butcher tried to put the fair in perspective during an interview with Libby Wann of the Chattanooga Times.

“I know the World’s Fair is the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s bigger than being governor. It’s better than being a banker.”

Ever the politician, he also admitted that he would rather be standing on the VIP platform the next day beside fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter, who had given Mr. Butcher moral and financial support for the fair while president.

Much of the opening ceremony – which was attended by 7,000 invited guests -- had a political overtone, according to the Times. It was an election year for governor and senator in Tennessee, and even President Reagan – whose Reaganomics had not yet brought the country out of its decade-long economic slide – credited only Republicans for bringing the fair to fruition. Spokesman Larry Speakes later said that was an oversight.

And when a Democratic fair organizer was introducing guests, only Democratic congressional representatives Marilyn Lloyd (then known as Marilyn Bouqard) and Harold Ford were mentioned.

The three-hour opening ceremonies had been televised live by Channel 3 and Channel 9, while Channel 12 also had a special report.

UT’s Pride of the Southland Band had entertained prior to the president’s arrival.

After President Reagan spoke, he headed off to eat barbecue with U.S. Sen. Howard Baker in Huntsville, Tenn., while Mr. Butcher immediately went to see the Kentucky Derby as a guest of Kentucky Gov. John and Phyllis George Brown.

But nearly 90,000 remained to say they had visited the park on that first day. Fair officials had feared problems, but parking and traffic were manageable, and hotel rooms at somewhat reasonable rates could also be found.

Dave Flessner of the Times reported that the longest lines that first day were to see exhibits that highlighted the past – not the future, as one would expect from a world’s fair. He stated that crowds waited to see the Egyptian, Peruvian and Chinese exhibits in the International Hall of Treasures on the southern end of the 72-acre fair site.

The People’s Republic of China had brought 22 bricks from the famous Great Wall of China, as well as two soldiers and a horse from the buried army of terra-cotta soldiers.

The Cold War was still taking place, so the Soviet Union had no exhibit.

Because the theme of the fair was energy, some of the exhibits focused on resources. The U.S. Pavilion – located in the only permanent pavilion structure – had long lines the first day, but some of the European energy exhibits were said to be downright boring and only minimally visited.

“It was like reading a video encyclopedia,” one visitor told Mr. Flessner.

Unlike some of the New York and Chicago world’s fairs – which focused on technology of the future – about the only innovation unveiled was a new Dairymen Inc. milk product that required no refrigeration.

Microcomputers, laser discs and touch-sensitive video screens were on display, however, and Ford Motor Co. showed off some new cars powered by methane and propane. Also, COMSAT featured a proposed satellite television system.

Some old-fashioned attractions were also part of the event, including a large Ferris Wheel and other amusement park rides near the banks of the Tennessee River, and the Stokely-Van Camp Folk Life Festival on the other end, which offered arts and music exhibits related to Southern Appalachia.

And, of course, people could ride up the Sunsphere’s elevator and look over the fair grounds. Chattanooga developer Franklin Haney was a part owner of the Sunsphere, as well as the nearby Holiday Inn and a fair parking garage.

When the fair was held, I was getting ready to start my last year at the University of Georgia. I did not come until early September, several months after the fair opened. I had heard horror stories about how crowded it was in the early summer, and I remember being pleasantly surprised that it did not have nearly as many people visiting as I had feared.

I still recall a lot from it: seeing the robot shaped like a Heinz ketchup bottle, watching the high-tech-for-its-time video in the China exhibit, and going to the top of the Sunsphere. I also remember seeing a former friend from my church youth group, who was working there during the summer while going to UT.

I also remember how Chattanooga benefited from the fair. Places like Rock City and Ruby Falls had record attendance, if I remember correctly. So did the Houston Antique Museum, where my mother, Velma Shearer, volunteered that summer as a guide.

In looking back today, the fair – although it is embraced by Knoxvillians with deep sentimentality -- did not make Knoxville another Charlotte or Atlanta as some had speculated, In fact, Chattanooga would later go on to receive more attention around the country as a city on the move with its riverfront redevelopment.

Fair organizer Jake Butcher would also develop legal problems related to his banking empire about the time the fair ended. And the Sunsphere and Tennessee Amphitheatre were closed for years and are just now in the process of reopening – with the help of Chattanoogans Jon Kinsey, Ken Hays and Ben Probasco.

But during that summer of a quarter century ago, the world’s eyes were focused positively on Tennessee’s third largest city. Most people took to heart the popular 1982 television jingle that said, “The 1982 World’s Fair. You’ve got to be there!”

And today, that makes everyone in East Tennessee still feel a little pride.

John Shearer

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