In 1892, Columbus was celebrated in big Chicago fair and by school children locally

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The huge Ferris wheel at the Columbian Exposition, invented by Frank W. Ferris, was so appealing that the concept led to the creation of an attraction still popular today. This tiny Ferris wheel made its appearance at an early Altamont Fair not long after being introduced at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Unlike the current controversy that swirls around Columbus and the impact of his voyages, to Americans in 1892 Columbus represented the heroism of a great explorer whose discoveries were considered the first beginnings of our great country.

The nation went all out to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his voyages with events ranging from patriotic programs in schools, to  parades, erection of Columbus statues, the issuance of special United States commemorative stamps and coinage, and President Benjamin Harrison’s declaration of Oct. 21 as a national holiday honoring what was considered Columbus’s discovery of America.

Guilderland joined in with other Americans participating in commemorative activities.

That March, a message appeared in New York State’s newspapers, including The Enterprise, directed at teachers alerting them to the “National Columbus Public School Celebration to be held on October 12, 1892.”  New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction Andrew Draper concluded by hoping that “trustees, parents, pupils and all will join to make this one of the greatest celebrations of the age.”

The pressure was on for teachers to plan public displays of student programs to instruct and entertain parents and townspeople.

When Oct. 12 rolled around, Altamont’s school children came through, earning much praise from the spectators who attended their program. Urged by The Enterprise to attend “to encourage teachers and pupils by your presence,” residents were not disappointed by the performance as students sang national airs and gave recitations with many of them in costume as they acted out dialogues.

Over at the small Fullers one-room school, children also put on a well-received program described by the Fullers correspondent as a “literary entertainment.” There were pupils marching, singing, and wearing costumes and the program ended with a dialogue of three pupils representing Liberty, George Washington, and Uncle Sam.

At the conclusion of the program, a flag was unfurled. Observing all of this was a “host of visiting relatives and friends of the children,” all praising the pupils’ performances.

Even the tiny Settles Hill School entertained their neighbors and parents with various exercises, ending with the unfurling of a flag for their audience. Guilderland Center pupils also raised a new flag after previous fundraising.

While no other reports of school performances appeared in The Enterprise, it seems there were probably programs on Oct. 12 in the town’s other schools as well since marking the event seemed to be a mandate from above.


Albany celebrates

When the Oct. 21 legal holiday arrived, Albany marked it with an all-day celebration featuring a series of parades, beginning in the morning with a firemen’s parade, followed in the afternoon with a military and civic parade, and closing the holiday that evening in a torchlight illuminated bicycle parade, bicycles being a new fad in 1892.

In one of the day’s earlier parades, the Altamont Band performed, The Enterprise commenting the next week, “representing our village, in company of the crack bands of the City, we feel proud of them.”

For this occasion, the D&H ran a special early morning excursion train into Albany making stops all along the line, including at Altamont and Meadowdale, with a return trip that night leaving Albany at 11:15 p.m.

The Enterprise weighed in the next week, writing, “Our Village was well represented at the Columbus celebrations in Albany and all seemed pleased with the exercises.”


Columbian Exposition

The next year, Chicago was the destination of many adventurous Guilderland residents who, along with millions of other Americans, journeyed to see the wonders of the Columbian Exposition. The culmination of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Columbus’s discovery, it was the greatest world’s fair of its time.

This international exposition, displaying 65,000 exhibits in buildings covering 686 acres, ran from May 1, when it was opened by President Grover Cleveland, until Oct. 31, 1893.

It’s no wonder that Guilderland’s Barney Fredendall commented upon his return home from the fair, “It will take two years to see it all.”

Organizers of the fair realized that attracting large numbers of visitors was essential to its success. While “hype” may be a modern term, those 19th-Century businessmen seemed to grasp the concept.

A steady stream of press releases, accompanied by woodcut illustrations of buildings and attractions were sent out to 30,000 U.S. and Canadian newspapers to stir up excitement among their readers.

The Altamont Enterprise was apparently on the mailing list, running frequent, lengthy front-page articles with headlines such as “The Rush at Chicago,” “Getting Ready For the Opening of the Fair,” “The Fair is Ready,” “The Fair is Open,” “The Great Fair — Bewildering and Amazing Midway Pleasures,” and “The Great Fair — Its Fascinating Beauty Under Summer Skies.”

How to get from Guilderland to Chicago and at what expense were the prospective fairgoers’ first considerations. The writer of The Enterprise’s “Village and Town” column asked readers, “Are you going to the Fair? If so, you should see the inducements offered by the World’s Fair Excursion and Hotel Association. For particulars apply at the Enterprise Office.”

An alternative choice came from Ferguson and Wormer in Voorheesville whose Enterprise ad invited those wishing to view the fair to join the World’s Fair Association to “save money and secure comfortable hotel rooms.”

Both of the railroads serving Guilderland advertised in The Enterprise special rates to travel to the Midwest. For $16.50, the D&H offered a round-trip ticket for Chicago-bound passengers willing to take specially scheduled excursion trains. One left Altamont at noon, Monday, July 24.

After transferring to the Erie Railroad at Binghamton, the travelers arrived in Chicago at 4:15 p.m. the next day. Passengers must have reached their destination with the 1893 version of jet lag after riding sitting up on day coaches throughout the 28-hour trip.

More affluent fairgoers could travel on a regularly scheduled train, paying for a $26.50 ticket that included sleeper-car accommodations. The D&H assured ladies traveling alone that special preparations were made for their convenience and comfort.

Guilderland Center and Fullers Station’s depots were on the route of the West Shore. A West Shore ad during the last weeks of the fair offered special rates on “magnificent excursion trains,” the special round-trip ticket from New York City for $17, which was proportionately reduced from stops along the way.

Travelers would be accompanied by a West Shore agent who would advise regarding accommodations in Chicago and point out the sights along the way. Fares on both railroads dropped during the last weeks of the fair in the autumn.

Upon arrival in Chicago, a fortunate few were able to stay with relatives living in the area as did Fullers Station’s Mrs. Charles Decker and her daughter Cora. The Misses Anna and Lulu Lockwood of Altamont planned to visit with their brother Dr. John F. Lockwood, “his home being a few miles from Chicago.”

The Enterprise editor John D. Ogsbury recommended the “commodious quarters” provided by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Hart, former Guilderland residents, and stayed with them himself when he and his wife spent 10 days at the fair in July. However, most of the visitors stayed in various hotels.

A great number of those Guilderland residents who had the stamina and the money to attend the fair did so. By May 19, The Enterprise editor commented that “a number of residents in the vicinity have registered for the World’s Fair trip.”

During the summer, he noted, “The matter of a visit to the World’s Fair is becoming an epidemic.” Throughout the summer, the local columns in The Enterprise mentioned names of those who had departed for the exposition.

In October, the editor noted, “It has been computed that 45 persons from this incorporated village attended the world’s fair during the past few months. With those who live in the immediate vicinity, we have done remarkably well to swell the crowds at the exposition.”

An informal survey of other Enterprise columns during the fair’s operation shows mentions of McKownville sending five plus family members, three from Meadowdale, 25 from Guilderland Center, eight from Fullers, five from Guilderland, and four from Dunnsville. Surely there were others whose names weren’t in the paper or one name was listed when that person was accompanied by other family members.

After these fairgoers paid their 50-cent admission, what was there to do and see? Huge buildings lined a lagoon where visitors could be enlightened about the latest technology, and for many it must have been their first encounter with electricity.

Fair visitors could view exhibits from places as diverse as Turkey, New South Wales, or Ceylon and could observe natives from many areas.

Probably most fairgoers would have agreed that the Midway Plaisance was the best part of the fair. That new invention, the Ferris wheel was the hit of the exposition, standing 264 feet high with 3- foot cars, each holding 60 people, powered by huge engines.

Another popular attraction was a captive balloon ride that took brave souls 1,500 feet above the fairgrounds. There were restaurants with foreign foods, Algerian and Egyptian belly dancers, and an ostrich farm — the list of attractions was endless.

John D. Ogsbury’s lengthy letter from Chicago describing the fair marveled at the Ferris wheel although he chose not to try the ride. He mentioned the various buildings holding exhibits and was fascinated with the New York Central Railroad exhibit of Engine 999 that had recently broken the all-time speed record parked next to the DeWitt Clinton, the original train that first ran in New York State.  

Many people remained at home, tied down with responsibilities, lacking the money, or were not well enough to travel that far and cover the extensive grounds of the fair.

They could view it all vicariously by attending events such as the “grand panoramic exhibition of the World’s Fair” at the Reformed Church when an entertainment under the auspices of Messrs. Felkins and Shafer of Albany would show a complete photographic panorama of “the marvelous buildings, exhibits, scenes and surroundings of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.”

Admission was 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children under 12.

For those fortunate enough to have visited the exposition, it was the experience of a lifetime. Christian Hartman probably was typical of fairgoers, returning home “delighted” with his experiences, while Maggie Hurst said, “The fair is great and everyone ought to see it.” 

The celebration had come to an end, and Columbus Day became a fixture in American life until recent years when controversy has arisen about Columbus and his holiday with a movement among some to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day.