Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The White City Progeny

A few years ago, my wife and I were volunteering at Vermont Public Radio, answering the phone during a fund drive. While the phones were quiet, one of our favorite on-air personalities, George Thomas (the jazz DJ), stopped by for a chat. He had noticed that Beth was reading Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City. We were fascinated to learn that Daniel Burnham, the main character in the book and the architect of the White City (1894's World's Fair grounds), was George's grandfather. How often does that happen? You pick up a non-fiction book and you discover that one of the amazing people discussed in the book is the grandfather of someone you know. How cool!

I picked up the book last month and starting reading. Of course, I knew that Burnham was George's grandfather, but then I realized that one of the other characters was the grandfather of someone else I knew. Again, how cool! When I lived in Boston, over a decade ago, I was a member of Ferry Wheelers Bicycle Club hosted by Ferris Wheels Bike Shop in Jamaica Plain. The first outing I ever went on with them was a bike ride from Jamaica Plain (Boston) to the town of Walpole to see the world's largest travelling Ferris Wheel. Why? Because the owner of Ferris Wheels, Jeffrey Ferris, was the grandson of George Ferris, the creator of the first Ferris Wheel.

The 1893 World's Fair, aka the World's Columbia Exposition, was a huge opportunity for Chicago and the United States to show their stuff. It was the 400 year anniversary of Columbus's landing in the new world so the US wanted to show the world that we could complete on the world stage. For the prior World's Fair, in Paris, the Eiffel Tower was built and awed the world. Burnham needed something to out do it. George Ferris's Chicago Wheel was it. It had 36 cars that were basically Pullman train cars. Each car could sit over 100 people, with seats over 60. It was the hit of the fair. It must have been amazing to see. It would put our regular run-of-the-mill carnival Ferris Wheel to shame.

Ferris Wheels are not the only American standard that came out of the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition. Out of the Fair came: shredded wheat, alternating current, chewing gum, Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, spray paint, zippers, hamburgers and the first time chocolate was mixed with caramel. The fair was such a success that the Federal Government introduced a new holiday called Columbus Day.

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