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A West Virginia Boy at the New York World’s Fair

By Dan B. Fleming, Jr.

Daniel at Fair
Dan B. Fleming, Jr., our author, at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Ever since I was a young child, I have enjoyed going to a fair. Seeing the happy faces of people winning blue ribbons for the best canned preserves, listening to a “carney” pitching a midway game to win a stuffed animal, or getting messy fingers from eating cotton candy, fairs have always been fun to me. However, nothing will ever equal the unique experience I had at the New York World’s Fair during the summers of 1939 and 1940.

In this modern age of instant communication and high-speed travel, it is unlikely that we will see another World’s Fair such as those that were so popular from the late 1800's up until a few decades ago. What once seemed novel and exotic, drawing millions of people from around the world, is no longer so enticing. Cities and countries that underwrote such events in the past hesitate to spend the large financial outlay needed to finance such projects today. In many parts of the country, even state and county fairs are disappearing.

The state of West Virginia was first represented at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 – the World’s Columbian Exposition. A hallmark of that fair was the introduction of first Ferris wheel, invented by George Ferris. West Virginia also had exhibits in 1933 at the Century of Progress in Chicago and at the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland in 1936.

Nothing before or since, however, has equaled the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940. At a cost of $155 million, it was built on 1,200 acres of marshy wasteland in Flushing, Queens. The theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow.” The fair drew 45 million visitors over two years, during a time while the nation was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Fair creators hoped it would help to stir the nation out of its economic doldrums by providing new hope for the future based on progress in science and technology. It was a jackpot for modernist architects and social planners.

Convinced that this was a good opportunity to let people everywhere learn more about West Virginia, the 1937 State Legislature appropriated $35,000 to prepare an exhibit in New York, with another $40,000 appropriated later. A fair commission was formed. My father State Senator Dan B. Fleming was selected to be the resident commissioner for the West Virginia exhibit, with Governor Homer A. “Rocky” Holt serving as ex-officio chair. House Speaker Kay Thomas was the vice-chairman, and Agricultural Commissioner J.B. McLaughlin was appointed secretary. The exhibit was constructed in New York over a period of two years and was barely completed in time to open on April 30, 1939.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.