Midwinter Fair Dedication: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

One hundred and twenty five years ago this last week, some 40,000 people crowded into a foggy Golden Gate Park meadow and another 20,000 overflowed into the surrounding drives, copses, and sandy hillsides. The big event was the groundbreaking ceremony for the California Midwinter International Exposition, more familiarly known as the Midwinter Fair.

Last week we looked at various groundbreaking ceremonies, and there certainly will be much attention (at least in the history community) for the 125th anniversary of the fair’s opening in January 2019. The occasion on August 24, 1893, however, deserves its own closer look.

There are at least two well-known photos of the day, taken by official fair photographer Isaiah West Taber, who reproduced them for souvenir booklets and cabinet cards and assigned them in his numbering system #6495 and #6496. The size of the audience and the lack of elbowroom in today’s Music Concourse are evident:

Michael de Young speech at Midwinter Fair groundbreaking, August 24, 1893.M. H. de Young addressing the great crowd for the groundbreaking of the Midwinter Fair in today’s Music Concourse, August 24, 1893. (wnp70.0211.jpg; Isaiah West Taber photograph; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection; courtesy of Molly Blaisdell.)
 

Since the San Francisco Chronicle was run by Michael de Young, mastermind of the fair, that newspaper naturally had the highest opinion on the day’s proceedings, but even its reporter gave a nightmarish description of the crowding:

“The swaying of this immense mass of humanity suggested the motion of the tides and was awful in its intensity. It threatened destruction of life at times, but the strains of the bands at once restored the equilibrium and fainting women and distracted children were always safely landed on the grand stand or passed out to higher ground.”1

Those not of tender years or the fairer sex were rudely thrust under the grandstand by police to alleviate the crush and make room for the groundbreaking in front of the dais. Other newspapers reported a liberal use of police truncheons on “hoodlums” harassing women in the crowd.

Detail of above photograph with M. H. de Young, his hat removed, about to speak.
 

The day had begun with a parade through the park panhandle to the site, a procession full of military companies, veterans groups, and private fraternal organizations that liked to play as soldiers. The fair, proposed in the midst of a national economic depression, was promoted as a panacea for hard times, a job-creating necessity, just as Olympic games and World Cups are touted by bidding cities today. To the San Francisco Examiner, de Young’s display of the glimmering groundbreaking silver shovel in the parade “signified work for the unemployed, business for the merchants, hope for the downcast, prosperity for all.”2

A contingent of unemployed workingmen closed the column, carrying, the Chronicle noted, “banners bearing patriotic mottoes and sentiments expressing very healthy anti-Chinese ideas.”3

The city’s Chinese population was always the easy scapegoat for economic problems, even in a parade for an “International” exposition that would include a large Chinese-themed exhibit, theatre, and restaurant. (This blaming vitriol to immigrants or natives labeled as “others” never goes away. One of the 1893 parade banners read “Chinatown threatens us with cholera,” right in the line of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 2015 statement that “tremendous infectious disease” was pouring across the Mexican border.)

In addition to the racist mottoes, the unemployed men also carried pleas that could be transcribed to any cardboard sign held on a San Francisco freeway offramp today: “Hungry, Destitute and Hopeless.”

At what was then called Concert Valley, today the Music Concourse where the de Young Museum and Academy of Sciences stand, the teeming crowd received the expected slate of speeches and band music. A young boy shinnied up a flagpole behind the stage and stole the show during de Young’s speech, which the Director-General joked about good-naturedly. All the newspapers agreed that the most stirring moments of the afternoon were the eerie silence in the fog for the opening invocation and the entire gathered multitude joining together to sing “America.” One of Taber’s photos shows Esther Johnson, member of the Native Daughters of the Golden West and a graduate of the California School of Oratory, reciting a dedicatory poem for the day. California, with twelve stanzas in a sing-song A-B rhyme, concluded with a class-crossing exhortation to the success of the fair and the entire state:

Then hail ye all honor to Labor,
With Capital close by its side,
Be progress forever our watchword,
California forever our pride.

Esther Johnson reads dedicatory poem for Midwinter Fair groundbreaking, August 24, 1893.Esther Johnson reads dedicatory poem for Midwinter Fair groundbreaking, August 24, 1893. (wnp37.01330.jpg; Isaiah West Taber photograph; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Finally, using his silver shovel, de Young deposited some earth in a silver casket with a battery of artillery from the Presidio letting loose a salute. De Young’s competitors at the San Francisco Examiner, while supporting the popular idea of the fair, couldn’t help but try to deflate de Young’s big moment:

“Anybody that wanted to could have gone out there and under cover of darkness removed this valuable hatful of dirt without fear of prosecution for larceny if detected…”4

To help pay the bills, an instant auction was held for the ceremonial shovel, the casket of dirt (seeded with rare coins), a gold-headed cane supposedly owned by George Washington, and sundry souvenirs, including a typewriter. It all brought in a slightly disappointing $880 ($24,000 in 2018 dollars).

To push the job-creation theme home, workers from the contracting company Warren, Malley & Buckman began grading and scraping the valley the instant the ceremony concluded with a benediction from Rabbi Voorsanger. The crowd cheered lustily, but the Examiner noted disappointment from some of the unemployed men who had carried “an indefinite idea that a prominent feature of the day’s proceedings would be the handing out of the pick and shovel to them.”5

Grading in future Music Concourse for 1894 Midwinter Fair.Grading in the future Music Concourse for the creation of the 1894 Midwinter Fair, 1893. (wnp37.03163.jpg; Isaiah West Taber photograph; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

The San Francisco Call described the end of a long day: “The fog was drifting in and the valley was fairly enshrouded in damp, fleeting clouds of mist. Yet the people stayed until the rabbi’s benediction was pronounced, they they turned toward home, glancing at graders on the way and wishing that the buildings were completed instead of only begun. The success of the day was unquestioned, and the presence of the people has demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Midwinter Fair is as certain to be held as the day is to dawn and night succeed morning.”6

 

Notes:

1. “A Great Day for the Pacific Coast,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1893, pg. 1.

2. “With Loud Acclaim,” San Francisco Examiner, August 25, 1893, pg. 1.

3. “A Great Parade,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1893, pg. 1.

4. “With Pomp, Pageantry and a Great Promise,” San Francisco Examiner, August 24, 1893, pg. 5.

5. “Asking for Work,” San Francisco Examiner, August 25, 1893, pg. 3.

6. “Rabbi Voorsanger,” San Francisco Call, August 25, 1893, pg. 2.