When the 'past' came to Century 21

Forget Elvis. The real featured visitor to the Seattle world's fair was the region's past. Roy Rogers, Paul Bunyan, an Indian village, and a parade of old-timers were there to sell a version of "progress." On Tuesday, HistoryLink.org will bring a lot of the world's fair history back to life at its annual banquet.

Crosscut archive image.

Century 21, Seattle 1962

Forget Elvis. The real featured visitor to the Seattle world's fair was the region's past. Roy Rogers, Paul Bunyan, an Indian village, and a parade of old-timers were there to sell a version of "progress." On Tuesday, HistoryLink.org will bring a lot of the world's fair history back to life at its annual banquet.

The French pavilion at Seattle's Century 21 Exposition made the statement that "The present springs out of the past. And today makes tomorrow. But what will our tomorrow be like?" That perfectly fit the theme of the future-focused expo. But it also suggested something you see a lot of in coverage of the 1962 world's fair, that is using the past as a yardstick of progress.

The fair featured a teepee Indian village, cowboy gunfights, and a giant cake with Paul Bunyan on top. There were many hat-tips to the past, and part of it was for entertainment, but it was also a way to compare how far we'd come. Newspaper stories frequently featured interviews with old timers who were at the fair and asked for their impressions. One result was the realization that Seattle's frontier past was very close at hand.

National press coverage of the fair frequently made reference to the discovery of a transformed old frontier. Newsweek called Century 21 "the biggest regional event since the arrival of Lewis & Clark." Time magazine exhorted America, Horace Greeley-style: "Go West, everybody." LIFE magazine used the past to highlight the modernity of Seattle's fair: "The lovely Washington metropolis, heretofore associated in the public mind, if at all, with tall timber and Klondike gold rushes, picked the most contemporary of themes — the space age — and brought off an exposition of soaring beauty and unique impact."

The Seattle fair was partly inspired by the desire to mark progress by hosting an expo on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. One of the fathers of the fair was Seattle city councilman Al Rochester, who had worked at the earlier event as a waiter. Fairs are often loosely tied to historic commemorations, such as Chicago's World Columbian Exposition in 1893 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. The 1939 New York World's Fair celebrating the "World of Tomorrow" was officially held to honor the 150th anniversary of George's Washington's inauguration.

Historic anniversaries are almost always over-shadowed by the fairs themselves, yet are often ceremonially re-enacted. In Seattle's case, there was an official AYP Day when Rochester and a group of old-timers showed up in hand-crank vintage '09 cars and period costumes. The VIP's included Victory Denny, head of the Seattle Historical Society, and Henry Broderick, the only surviving member of the AYP board of trustees and a Century 21 board member as well. "Yesterdays are yesterday," Broderick said. "They don't seem so very long ago." In this case, it was true: the Gold Rush and the turn-of-the-century AYP were well within living memory.

Daniel Hicks, age 92, of Umatilla County, Oregon visited the fair, and his experiences warranted a press write-up. His trip was his first visit outside of Pilot Rock since 1877 when, the Seattle Times reported, "he took a trip to Missouri after riding horseback 30 days to Ogden, Utah, to catch a train." He was awed by the Space Needle views. "I had never been higher than the saddle on a horse before," he admitted. 

Another fair visitor was an Englishman, Casper Vashon Baker, who was the great-great grandson of Lt. Joseph Baker, who was on Captain George Vancouver's ship Discovery when it explored Puget Sound in 1792, the first European expedition to do so. Mt. Baker, which you can spy from the Space Needle, was named after Lt. Baker. Casper Baker's great-great-great grandfather was the British admiral for whom Vashon Island was named. Even the Age of Discovery wasn't many generations past.

Revisiting the past was a way to give the fair context and continuity, to show how far we'd come, and to reinforce frontier themes such as exploration and colonization for a new century. In the future, the New Frontier was space, and the solar system was the new Wild West.

Native Americans were presented at the fair in ways that connected the region to a "living" past, and one that sought to reconcile whites and Indians who had historically been in conflict. A major exhibit of Northwest Indian art was curated by the University of Washington's Erna Gunther, and received praise from critics. The Chief Seattle statue near the fairgrounds at 5th and Cedar was cleaned and refurbished for the fair. A popular photographic view was to juxtaposed Seattle's namesake against the Space Needle. In 1962, the statue was not enclosed by trees.

On Washington State Indian Day, a circle dance was held at the Indian Village. Dancing were Gov. Albert D. Rosellini and Roy Rogers, who were given feathered bonnets. The "King of the Cowboys," Rogers was named an honorary sub-chief, and the Times ran a large a photograph of Rogers shaking the hand of Martin Comedown, age 8, of the Colville tribe. The expression on the boy's face was described as "hero worship," and the Indian women behind him, in full tribal regalia, were described as showing that "they like cowboys, too." 

By no means was this the first time that an exposition had been the occasion to remind the public that in the battle between cowboys and Indians, cowboys had come out on top. The symbolism of the popular sculpture "The End of the Trail" with its downcast, defeated Indian on horseback, was clear about that. It is considered an icon of Western art. It was created for and displayed at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. The Roy Rogers picture at Century 21 put a cheerier, TV-age spin on it.

Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield received an honor from Oregon tribes at the fair, where Indians, according to a press account, "buried the hatchet with the white man yesterday" and gave the senator an Indian name. Hatfield said "This is a symbol of understanding between the red men and white men that can serve as an inspiration to all the countries of the world."

There is a long history too of expositions displaying "primitive" peoples as a way of demonstrating progress, or the evolution of "primitive" forms to higher, more modern ones. It is, in fact, a staple of fairs, which tend to showcase the exotic, from Pueblo Indians to African Pygmies. The exhibition of indigenous peoples and the anthropology exhibits at world's fairs can be positively cringe-inducing for modern viewers. The village of near-naked Igorrote "dog-eaters" and "head hunters" from the Philippines at AYP is a notorious example. 

In January, 1962 Times humor columnist Byron Fish made note of this history and the thrill of watching "primitives" such as the Igorrotes at fairs like AYP and the St. Louis fair of 1904, and lamented that "there are few really primitive tribes left in the world now and there will be fewer in the 21st century." His suggestion? Tie-in with the UFO phenomenon by getting some "little green men and women" from out of this world. "Let us have a village of Martians, and at least a couple of Venusians." Fish's column readily demonstrated that the 19th century mindset was prepared for a leap into the future, unreformed, even if it now came with a twinkle in its eye.

Another way of measuring progress was to see how well Century 21 measured up to previous world's fairs. Many press accounts feature interviews with people who had attended multiple expositions, and they were always asked how Seattle's measured up. Fred G. Morse, 85, had attended every major fair since Chicago in 1893, making Seattle his 8th. He said it "glitters like the Panama-Pacific Exposition," famed for its illuminated Tower of Jewels. Century 21 was the tenth world's fair F.B. Taylor, 78, an attorney from Lincoln, Nebraska, and he called it "magnificent." Grant A. Beach, 86, of Denver had attended six fairs and found Seattle's a "disappointment." Part of the reason might have been his own sense of mortality. He said he wasn't going to be around for the 21st century, so it just wasn't of interest.

This week, things come full circle as the Seattle website Historylink.org will hold its annual luncheon on Tuesday and kick-off the imminent publication of their new history of the 1962 fair, The Future Remembered, by Paula Becker and Alan Stein. The event will try to recreate the feel of Century 21 with original fair participants and people dressed in the uniforms and attire of '62. The world's fair is now itself history, and thus the remembrance is an appropriate way to start measuring again how far we've come in the last 50 years.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.