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Historical Fare

Author series begins at
Oldham County History Center

Southern Exposition held
many firsts for Louisville

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LA GRANGE, Ky. (February 2013) – When visiting the St. James Art Fair several years ago, Bryan Bush became intrigued with the information he found on a monument in front of the St. James Historic District. It related information about the Southern Exposition, which took place in Louisville from 1883 to 1887.
He began searching microfiche from the Louisville Courier-Journal, which had published detailed articles about the exposition. The paper’s chief editor, Henry Watterson, had covered the event every day because he was responsible for its taking place in Louisville.

Bryan Bush

Watterson came up with the idea for the Southern Exposition in 1882 after reading about the idea of holding a cotton exposition. “Atlanta beat us to the draw, so Watterson expanded the idea,” said Bush, a historian and author. In addition to an agricultural element, Watterson’s plans included inviting Northern states to participate with their industrial and mercantile businesses.
Bush will be the featured speaker for a new series of programs offered at the Oldham County History Center, "History Press Dinner Series." The program will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, in the Rob Morris Educational Building in La Grange, and includes light dinner fare and books for sale.
A 10-acre building once stood on the site of what is now St. James Court in the Old Louisville neighborhood. It held a five-year series of World’s fairs, running for 100 days each year.
“The exposition held a lot of firsts,” said Bush. It held the largest installation of the recently invented incandescent light bulb, a large bicycle track, an electric train ran around the entire complex and large agricultural implements were on display. “At one point it became the World’s fair,” representing different countries, Bush said.

Louisville's Southern Expostition  Book Cover

“To keep it fresh, Watterson gave it a different theme each year,” he said. In 1884, the exposition had a military theme, complete with the Kentucky state guard camped on the grounds and drill competitions.
In 1885 the theme was the World’s Fair, in 1886 it was Dinosaurs, and the Southern Exposition ended in 1887 with a children’s theme. Bands were brought in, concerts held and even operatic performances took place.
One element that made it stand out was a separate building that housed an art gallery, said Bush. “To have an art gallery was very unusual for that time period.” People such as J.P. Morgan and Ulysses S. Grant loaned items for display in the art gallery, and President Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Lincoln, visited the exposition.
“We chose Bryan Bush for the first lecture because he published a book on the Southern Exposition and we thought it would be a good choice for our exhibit opening on the Southern exposition military drill competition letters,” said Nancy Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center.
Bush, a Louisville native, is the author of 11 books. His program will consist of a lecture about his book, “Louisville’s Southern Exposition: 1883-1887,” and a powerpoint presentation that includes pictures and drawings about the Southern Exposition.
Bush, a Civil War scholar, is also involved in a historical project at Louisville’s Conrad-Caldwell House. He will be the speaker for the opening of an exhibit titled, “Louisville During the Civil War,” that runs from Jan. 26 through June 12.
Bush’s lecture in Oldham County will follow the 5 p.m. opening of a new year-long exhibit at the History Center titled, "Saving the Printed Word." This exhibit will include some of the History Center’s manuscripts and letters, such as our Southern Exposition letters for military drills, said Theiss. The letters “are part of the David Weller Collection that we got from Chilton Barnett’s estate.”
“Part of the Southern Exposition program included invitations to volunteer militia guards to come and participate in competition drills.”
Weller helped organize the drill competition, and after the Civil War, he was very active in the Kentucky volunteer guard.
Included in the exhibit will be a hand press that visitors can use and an area highlighting cursive handwriting with feather quill pens and letter seals. The idea for the exhibit “came from Karen Eldridge of Karen’s Book Barn, who expressed concern over the loss of printed materials and historic manuscripts in the future,” Theiss said.
In conjunction with the exhibit, several workshops will be offered at the History Center throughout the year. The first will take place from 1-3 p.m. Sunday, March 3, and feature Lexington, Ky. artist and teacher Barbara Christensen. She will conduct a workshop titled, “Using Relief Rubbings to Incorporate in Artwork.” A fee will be charged for the workshop.
Another workshop will be featured from 1-3 p.m. Sunday, March 10, titled, “Collecting Rare Books.” The program will be given by collector Norvelle Wathen and Bookbinder Gene Ward. This program is free, but reservations are suggested.

• For more information or to reserve tickets for the Bryan Bush program, contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826. Tickets are $12 for members and $15 for non-members.

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