Off the Press

February 21, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Fair predicted a brave new world 50 years ago

Warren Kagarise Press reporter

From a standpoint 50 years later and a dozen years into the 21st century, some ideas — flying cars, outer space colonies — presented at the Century 21 Exposition seem more quaint than far-fetched.

The idea of Greater Seattle as a technology hub, however, lingers long after the world’s fair closed in October 1962.

For a piece in the wintertime Issaquah Living magazine, I set out to collect local fairgoers’ memories from the heady days before and during the Century 21 Exposition. (Readers can find the magazine tucked amid the sales circulars in the B section.)

I heard the same question again and again from colleagues, family and friends as I reported the piece: “Do cities still put on world’s fairs?”

The answer is yes. Shanghai hosted Expo 2010 and Expo 2012 is scheduled to open in Yeosu, South Korea, in May.

The last fair on U.S. soil opened almost 30 years ago. New Orleans’ 1984 Louisiana World Exposition is remembered as a financial failure and attendance disappointment. In the years since, the United States left the Bureau of International Expositions and Congress barred federal contributions for U.S. expo exhibits.

In the early 1960s, however, Seattle and nearby environs embraced the world’s fair.

The connection between Issaquah and the expo, I soon learned, extended far deeper than old photographs and long-forgotten souvenirs.

In 1958, local business leaders suggested a fascinating possibility: Lake Sammamish State Park as the host site for the exposition. Planners dismissed the idea in the early stages, as interest coalesced around the future Seattle Center.

I appreciated readers’ nostalgia as I reported the piece, in part because, at 27, I never met the opportunity to eat a Belgian waffle at the Food Circus or ride the Ferris wheel along the Gayway. (Though the Ferris wheel ride is a moot point; I find open-air cabs unnerving.)

Patricia Brooks Greetham, a former Issaquah resident, remembered toting infant son James to the fair just after opening day.

“Having a newborn didn’t keep me home,” she recalled, although no photographs documented the occasion, because “I don’t think I carried a camera and a baby at the same time.”

The memories, still crisp after a half-century, reflected personal milestones and global impact.

“I think even then people on the East Coast probably thought we were running around with wild Indians hanging around and trying to scalp us,” former Issaquah resident Russ Fish said.

The globe is interconnected on a scale unimaginable 50 years ago — another legacy from the Seattle expo.

Lorraine McConaghy, public historian at the Museum of History & Industry, said the 21st century in Greater Seattle is defined by “creativity across the board, from poems to patents” — a permanent legacy from the fair.

“We have, I would submit,” she said, “more to explore and celebrate in Seattle in 2012 than they did in 1962.”

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