Omaha’s version of a world’s fair in the late 1800s put the city and the region in the spotlight. Now, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor is hoping the public will come forward with artifacts to help him build an online resource for anyone who wants to study that event, the 1898 Trans-Mississippi International Expo. NET Radio’s Roger Bartlett spoke recently with Timothy Schaffert, assistant professor of English at UNL, about the project.
Watch a documentary from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, "Westward the Empire: Omaha's World's Fair of 1898," at the bottom of the article.
ROGER BARTLETT, NET RADIO: The Trans-Mississippi International Exposition of 1898 covered 108 city blocks in Omaha, attracting more than 2.6 million visitors. It was designed to show that the West had recovered from the financial panic of 1893. Timothy Schaffert, a UNL assistant professor of English, is building an online resource to archive exposition materials, and he’s looking for your help.
Paint us a picture. Over 100 city blocks. What did expo attendees see and hear?
TIMOTHY SCHAFFERT: Well, when they walked in they would see what they were calling the ‘new white city,’ which was sort of a version of Chicago’s famous White City of 1893. So they were these Grecian Roman structures, a grand canal through the center that stretched throughout the entire court and just a sort of lavish, lush - a lot of reports at the time called it a kind of fairyland, or magic palaces.
And then you crossed the bridge into the midway, which was a sort of down and dirty part of the fair, which was just a hodge-podge of exhibits (and) rides. Not so much like the carnivals of today, but certainly what inspired those carnivals.
And there were state buildings, different states referred to as the Trans-Mississippi region. They had exhibits, and there was what they called the Indian camp.
BARTLETT: Can you tell us more about the Indian Camp and the Congress at the fair?
SCHAFFERT: The fair is a … kind of complicated celebration of the settlers’ efforts of taking the land as their own and building these cities and building business, and at the same time, wanting to show some respect to the cultures that were there before them. And the result was this kind of anthropological exhibit that nonetheless involved human beings.
So you have to also consider, not far from the Indian camp was the Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill Cody and that tradition of staged stage coach ambushes and that sort of thing. … Eventually, at the Indian camp, you would go and watch sham battles, because they recognized that this is really the kind of Native American experience that the fairgoers want to see. And so I think even when President McKinley visited, I think he went and sat at a sham battle, and so I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that whole part of the fair.
I’m definitely interested in other perspectives, not just in terms of the Native American culture, but black Americans that were coming to the fair. There were similar conflicts in that you had the Association of Colored Editors, as they were known, (and) black newspapers coming to town. There were black newspapers in Omaha publishing about the fair, and yet at the same time, there was a plantation exhibit where people went and saw minstrel shows. And the famous jazz artist, W.C. Handy, performed there early on in his career. These cultural dimensions are fascinating and deserve exploration.
BARTLETT: What are you hoping that people will find that they can provide to the archives?
SCHAFFERT: Letters, postcards, journal entries, as well as souvenirs, ephemera, bits and pieces of the fair that might remain in their own personal collections. I do occasionally get notes from people who say, for example, my friend Mary Kay Stillwell said she had a little dish that she kept jewelry in. At the bottom of the dish it says the Trans-Mississippi Exposition and so she sent me a picture of that. Those little items contribute to our overall sense of the fair and contribute to our personal experiences as opposed to an official experience.
There’s the official story of the fair which we can gather from issues from the Omaha Bee, which fortunately we can look at right on the Library of Congress website, and search it and see the actual newspaper page and get a real good sense of the time. There are digital versions of the Omaha World-Herald I’ve been consulting, and then, of course, there are the photographs, but I haven’t seen so much of the personal stories about the fair: people who attended and maybe jotted down some kind of experience in diaries or in letters, postcards, so that’s what I’m hoping to see more of.