Document 72: Expo'74

Dawn Bowers, Expo’74: World’s Fair Spokane (Spokane: Expo’74 Corporation, 1974), 1-2.

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EXPO '74

by Dawn Bowers

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 74-15913
Copyright 1974 by Publisher—Expo '74 Corporation
P.O. Box 1974, Spokane, Washington 99210

Text—Dawn Bowers
Design—Robert Reynolds
Editing—Barry Anderson
Project Supervision—John Musgrave
Photography—Dennis Anderson

Don Hale
John Hardin
Bruce Henson
Walter Hodges
Jan Osborne
Brad Pokorny
Roy Robinson
James D. Ryan
Tom Salyer
John Walker
Doug Wilson

Printing—Graphic Arts Center, Portland, Oregon
Lawton Printing, Inc., Spokane, Washington
Binding—Lincoln and Allen
Printed in the United States of America

No one should have been surprised.

The tradition was there all the time. Perhaps it began with the American Revolution: the rag tag citizens of a cluster of small colonies wresting independence from the most powerful nation on earth. It certainly continued in the winning of the West by a handful of intrepid pioneers. And Neil Armstrong unquestionably reinforced the tradition when he took man's first steps on the moon.

Americans have come to expect Horatio Alger stories. We're used to having the underdog turn the game around in the last thirty seconds of play.

Yet, when Spokane it was going to host a World's Fair, most of the rest of the nation thought it an impossible dream. And, they had reason.

At first glance, Spokane seems one of the least likely cities in the country in which to hold an international exposition. With a mere 180,000 population (250,000 if you count the metropolitan surroundings), it was certainly the smallest ever to do so.

Previous modern World's Fairs had been held in Brussels, New York, Montreal, Osaka—giant urban complexes that could support such ambitious undertakings. Seattle had been the only relatively small city to successfully present a World's Fair.

Perhaps that should have given the skeptics their first clue.

To make the dream even more impossible, Spokane had come up with an environmental theme. The environment was such a serious subject and environmentalism had been characterized as those people who wanted to stop progress and return to nature. Such a serious theme would be difficult for even the largest of cities to handle, let alone a Spokane. And, how could an environmental World's Fair be any fun? Who would attend?

To the 180,000 people who lived in the small city whose name few knew how to pronounce (Easterners persisted in calling it Spo-cane), the idea of a World's Fair seemed a bit brash, too. They liked the theme, though. Concern for the environment was not a new subject in the State of Washington. Education and exposure just might awaken the rest of the nation that the time to do something about the environment was right now. The whole subject was not just a passing fad. If the world didn't begin taking some action there just might not be much world left to concern ourselves about before very long.

The idea of a World's Fair on the environment just might work. Suppose visitors came and discovered just what Spokanites treasured: an environment of rolling wheat fields and pine forests, clear blue lakes more abundant than big city freeways, and that river, with its cascading rapids, and churning falls that rivaled Niagara in total descent.

Spokane and the Inland Empire were the meat and potatoes country of an adventurous state. Stability was the hallmark of its people. There were those who argued that everything was behind the times—the whole state was often described as California forty years ago.

There was a serenity to Spokane and a friendliness of its people which hadn't been sacrificed for its position as the hub of eastern Washington, northwest Idaho, and western Montana. The role as cultural, financial, medical and economic center of the Inland Empire hadn't accelerated the pace of life appreciably. And, people imprisoned in the big cities were beginning to long for return to that simpler lifestyle.

Spokane is the home of sixty public parks, Fairchild Air Force Base, nine golf courses, six colleges and universities, fabricated aluminum factories, seventy-six mountain lakes within fifty miles, processed food plants, skiing on mountain slopes forty minutes from city center, commercial truck trailers and the river.

Its people are pragmatic, not given to delusions of grandeur, pretty much apple pie and American—the basics everyone talks of getting back to and doesn't. Quality of living is deemed more important than hasty growth.

The people are not escapists hiding from the world's realities. Quite the contrary. They recognized the realities long ago and coped with them in an unhurried, steadfast approach. Parks and homes are of more importance than freeways; clean air and schools more desirable than heavy industry.

But, Spokane could hardly be considered the showcase setting for a World's Fair that would attract a sophisticated cosmopolitan audience in the millions, particularly if they came expecting to witness American impatience for growth and progress, displayed in ever shinier, ever more complicated technology.

A low-key Spokane just wasn't the place.

All Spokane had was the basics of America. A warm, inherently helpful, gracious people and space where nature hadn't been abandoned. All Spokane had was a showcase of the strengths and weaknesses of what America is all about . . . land, people, and faith in its own scheme as part of the complex American dream.

Surely, said Spokanites, the world wouldn't come to see a World's Fair in a setting like that? But, perhaps it would.

A group of Spokane businessmen thought it would. They set about the arduous task of convincing the people of Spokane, the state, and nation that what the world needed and wanted, without knowing it, was a renewed hope in adversity . . . a challenge to man's ingenuity . . . the old American dream of fighting overwhelming odds, shaking apathy by its shoulders, and doing something which had never before been accomplished.

Spokane had a story to tell and someone had to listen. At first, the last people in the world who wanted to listen were the media of the country. Token mentions of Spokane's World's Fair were made with condescending (and inaccurate) headlines such as “Expo '76 – Can Seattle Pull It Off?” “Will Tacoma's World's Fair Be Ready?” and “Spokane? Spo-Can? Site of a World's Fair?”

It wasn't until the site was cleared and the stubborn Spokanites overcame hurdle after difficult hurdle that the media decided the city was serious about putting on a World's Fair. To add to the media's perplexity was the dedication to that theme—environment. It couldn't work, but best to keep a wary eye on it just in case Spokane accomplished the impossible.

Because Spokanites believed, its citizens were the most tenacious public relations people to be found. The not only convinced themselves but amazingly convinced their state, their national government, and the prestigious but conservative Bureau of International Expositions in Paris, that Spokane was the place where the exposition for 1974 would be held.

There were still skeptics out there in America—even when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics signed on to the exhibit. The media were beginning to pay attention, however, because the Soviets had not exhibited at a World's Fair since New York's in 1939. When other nations signed contracts, some of the skeptics turned to cynics. Maybe Expo '74 would be a viable event, but who would come? The called Expo the “best kept secret in the world.”

Some of the anonymity wore off when in May 1973, the Fair was designated the first of the major Bicentennial celebrations by the Congress of the United States, a prelude to the all-out extravaganza of 1976. The secret leaked out additionally when travel agents discovered that those people “out there” wanted to see the Northwest and “as long as we'll be in the area, we may as well take in the Fair.”

And the orders for brochures grew. And the clippings from distant newspapers mounted. Where a bonanza week had once been ten clippings from across the nation, forty and fifty pages plastered with clippings were filed each week. Orders for press kits and brochures arrived asking for information to be sent to Poland, Nairobi, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, England, Mexico, Hong Kong, Finland, and France.

Hopes were raised then dashed when the energy crisis intervened, casting gloom on believers and delight on the cynics. Attendance projections plummeted but not the requests for information on the Fair. Bizarre things were happening out there. The tap of interest could not be shut off by mere gasoline.

Requests for accommodations, a trickle in February, began pouring in . . . a steady stream which, once the gasoline shortage abated, became a flood. Ticket sales inundated the advance ticket office. Season passes, block tickets, one-day admissions. The wave of interest was assuming tidal proportions.

Suddenly Spokane was being pronounced correctly and the public knew it was not Seattle or Portland or just a little town in the Northwest. As the May 4 opening drew near and the President of the United States announced he would be present to open Expo '74, the first World's Fair dedicated to the environment. Spokane took its rightful place on the map of the world.

Spokane was the smallest city ever to host a World's Fair. The little town that could, showed the world it did.

Just like the American tradition dictated it should.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest