Harpers Weekly

Detroit International Fair and Exposition

Image: Delray in 1889. If we were to take an aerial shot from the same spot today, instead of seeing the grand halls and pavilions of the International Fair, we would be peering down onto the black land and factories of Zug Island. Francis Schell and Thomas Hogan, Engraving: General View of the Buildings and Grounds of the Detroit International Fair and Exposition (Harpers Weekly, 1889).

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Detroit was growing in the 1880s, and seeking a reputation among the great cities of the era. An exposition company was formed to help make this a reality. By early 1889, the exposition company had the funding it needed, and the Detroit International Fair and Exposition became a reality. The company purchased seventy-two acres of land at the juncture of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers, just south of Fort Wayne. The forested riverbanks and agricultural lands had long been enjoyed by canoeists, fishermen, and hunters, and was a beautiful area to blend technological and agricultural advancement in the context of Detroit.

Advertisements filled newspapers around the country, touting the exposition. Harpers Weekly devoted a large part of its August 17, 1889 issue to the upcoming Detroit International Exposition Fair, which would open exactly one month later on September 17, 1889. The display touted “the largest building in the world erected exclusively for fair and exposition purposes,” and went on to boast of the plethora of industries and activities that would be represented, from packaged seeds to stove manufacturers to musicians and a painting gallery with 300 artworks. The fair would be so large that the author said the only person capable of seeing everything in a day would have to be a “professional pedestrian.”

Some local property owners saw the fair as an opportunity to promote the village of Delray itself and to further their goal of annexation by the City of Detroit. They hoped that the Exposition would substantially raise property values, bring about street improvements, and require the construction of a town hall, as well as expanding Delray’s boundaries to include all the territory north of Fort Street, the east of the city, south by the Detroit River, and west by the River Rouge.

To this extent the fair met its goals, jumpstarting major construction projects in Delray. Event planners and urban boosters transformed the area by draining marshlands, clearing farms, building new roads and railways, and even constructing two additional docks to accommodate the anticipated increase in river traffic. The fair happened at a time when Detroit was bursting with economic and industrial activity and this event solidified its reputation as a booming city, drawing significant attention from industry. In 1895, the Solvay Processing Plant would take over the fairgrounds’ main exposition building itself, which it demolished to build a factory, and began to dig for salt. All in all, the fair’s success portrayed Detroit as a city balancing agriculture and industry in a thriving economy, while also sowing the seeds of new development.

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Visitors to the fairgrounds, 1889. Image from River Rouge Historical Museum.

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The fairgrounds, 1889. Image from River Rouge Historical Museum.

  • “A BOOM FOR DELRAY.: The Exposition Project Excites the Ambition of the Delray Property Owners.,” Detroit Free Press, May 8, 1889, 8.
  • Brendan Roney, “All Roads Lead to Delray”, Detroit Historical Society,http://detroithistorical.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/all-roads-lead-to-delray/ (accessed March 29, 2014).
  • Richard Bak, “A Fair to Remember”, Hour Detroit, http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/February-2009/A-Fair-to-Remember/ (accessed March 29, 2014).
  • Detroit International Fair and Exposition (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Argus, July 31st, 1891).

Click here to see all narratives on Delray

Click here to see a timeline of events in Delray

Click here to see resources for further reading on Delray

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