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A mighty Southern city: Great Southern Exposition of 1883 lives on at Conrad-Caldwell House Museum in Old Louisville

by Staff

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Simply walking the streets of Old Louisville is to revisit the architectural splendor of the Victorian Age.

But even the people who live there have no idea how Louisville came to have a city-within-a-city of stately brick and stone mansions, gaslights and a giant, ornate fountain.

Old Louisville is what remains of the Great Southern Exposition, Louisville’s testament to the vibrancy of Southern culture and commerce held 125 years ago.

That enormous event – an attempt to validate the relevance of the South 20 years after the Civil War that was attended by millions, from around the world – was held between 1883 and 1887.

There’s never been anything like it since in Louisville.

But you can still get a first-hand feel for what was the largest peacetime event ever held in the South up to that point. The historic Conrad-Caldwell House Museum on St. James Court has amassed an exhibit about the Exposition, running through this Derby weekend.

The museum, which is chockablock with authentic historical mementos and Victorian furnishings from the days when first the Conrad familyl, and then the Caldwells lived there, between 1894 and 1940, is devoting its massive third floor to a presentation of the Exposition’s posters, programs, maps, photographs, exhibitors’ medals and press clippings.

Much of the press attention occurred on Aug. 1, 1883, when President Chester Arthur personally opened the event.

Memorabilia includes the actual glasses and cups that held the very first ice cream sodas served in Louisville.

Henry Watterson, editor of The Louisville Courier, conceived of a Cotton Exposition to celebrate the South’s primary resource, but he was beaten to the punch by Atlanta in 1881. So he expanded the Louisville show into a celebration of all things Southern: commerce, culture, artwork, technology and industry.

The heavily forested hunting grounds just south of central Louisville were cleared and a huge pavilion and fairgrounds were built. A wooden structure was erected in the middle of what is now Central Park, with more than 5,000 of Thomas Edison’s newfangled electric lights.

The lights not only illuminated the hall but also the grounds, making it the first exhibition of its kind to include evening hours.

The building was meant to be a temporary space for the 100-day event. But organizers were unprepared for the turnout. In the first 88 days, nearly a million people descended on Louisville. (Louisville itself had a population of just 156,000 at the time.) So the event was expanded to run between August and November for the next five years.

Watterson wanted to show the world that the South was indeed rising again from the ashes of the war. “Battlefields are behind us, fields of labor before us,” was one of his slogans.

But his intention was more than just simply reinvigorating the South. He wanted to call attention to Louisville as a vigorous commercial hub, a river town that was fast becoming a railroad town as well. “With fuel, cheap lumber and cheap coal and unsurpassed transportation facilities, the future of Louisville is assured,” Watterson announced.

The New York Times bought into the hype for its opening day coverage on July 31, 1883:

[T]he city is the largest tobacco market in the world. . . . During the 10 years ending in 1861, 161,289 hogsheads of tobacco were sold in ‘the breaks’ here. During the 10 years ending in 1881, the number had increased to 571,949 hogsheads. [Editor's note: You might not need to know what a hogshead is to know that a 354 percent increase – of almost anything – is a big deal!]

The district manufactures 20,000,000 gallons of whiskey per year, stands tenth in the list of Clearing House cities, and ninth in importance as a Federal collections district. It manufactures more leather than any other city in America.

The Times also took note of Watterson’s attempt to make this more than just a commercial fair:  “The art department, which was an afterthought, will be the most successful branch of the exposition. It will comprise the most valuable collection of paintings and curios ever seen in the West or South.”

And The Times coverage didn’t end with the Exposition. It evaluated our fair city, and its people, as well:

Louisville has grown on a natural and stable basis since the war. In every respect, it is the most inviting residence city in the West or South. The stranger who is drawn thither will have glimpses of the most attractive quarter of one of the most beautiful cities in the country. . . . In the autumn, winter and spring, women in the city turn out for what is locally known as ‘the parade.’ . . . They are very handsome, as a rule, measured by that healthy standard of abundant muscle, plumpness and a clear complexion.

The Kentucky woman lacks the lithe grace of the Northern or Southern woman. She is usually a comfortable body who lasts well.

After the Exposition was over, Louisville took advantage of the cleared grounds to build the neighborhood that would serve as the country and weekend retreat of the wealthy. It’s “Old Louisville” today, but it was “New Louisville” to residents of The Gilded Age, as homes, parks and carriage paths replaced the old fairgrounds. And much of that Victorian-era design remains today.

You don’t have to visit the dusty newspaper archives to go thither, take your plump and abundantly muscled body, and relive those days.

The Conrad Caldwell House Museum, at 1402 St. James Court, will transport you there with its painstakingly assembled collection.

Call 502-636-5023 for hours, dates and other information; email them at conradcaldwellhouse@gmail.com and/or visit the website here.

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