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but first, country: In 1917, Mississippi's Centennial Expo was pushed aside for World War I.

On October 12, 1916, in the progressive, 29-year-old city of Gulfport, 5,000 people gathered to witness the ground-breaking ceremony for the Mississippi Centennial Exposition. Governor Theodore G. Bilbo presided over the event, held on the front porch of longtime Harrison County chancery clerk F.S. Hewes' home. Immediately following the governor's speech, the home was razed to make way for the construction of the centennial administration building. It would be the first of seven permanent majestic structures, all of which were built in the modern Spanish mission style of architecture. Each building was constructed of concrete, steel, and hollow tile, all designed to preserve Mississippi's story for generations to come. On January 15, 1917, after only four months, exposition officials excitedly moved into the completed administration building. Other buildings quickly followed. The Expo was scheduled to open on December 10, 1917, and run through June 10,1918.

By February 10, 1917, the Centennial Commission had adopted an Expo icon featuring the same eagle clutching both arrows and palm branches in its talons as appears on our state's coat of arms surrounded by a circle of wording which read "Mississippi Centennial Exposition Gulfport 1817-1917."

The site, which consisted of 147 acres with 2,200 feet of beachfront, grew quickly. Buildings began popping up one after another. The largest structure, which for a time reigned as the largest building of its kind in the state, was the Coliseum. Designed for conventions, it was equipped with "comfortable opera chairs" that would seat 5,000 people. The Expo plan, according to wording printed on the back of the Expo's official postcard, shared that it was "the home of the greatest Chautauqua ever held in the South." Mississippi was the only state in the Union to sanction the Chautauqua (an American Indian word meaning "to lead the spiritually blind") movement.

Another large building was the Mississippi Building that was intended to showcase the first 100 years of our state's technological progress along with the accomplishments and achievements of our people. The other four buildings--The Manufacturers Building; the Woman's, Boys and Girls Building; the Efficiency Building; and the Arts and Crafts Building--were all equally grand and architecturally magnificent. Mr. Michel, a well-known St. Louis landscape architect, aesthetically accented each in a virtual Eden of plants. To quote writer Henry W. Black from his book Gulfport Beginnings and Growth, "under Michle's supervision, more than 3,000 plants, shrubs, and trees were planted. The central attraction was a projected lily pond, 300 feet long, 150 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. It had an island in the center reached by bridges made of native wood." Planned also, "was an 86-foot fountain, resting on a pedestal with four faces representing the four seasons. An immense globe topped a Doric shaft, 54 feet high and 8 feet in diameter. There were four fountains of various heights, each with seven sprays that changed colors by light changes."

Things were on schedule and going well until April 6, 1917. That was the day American joined Great Britain and her allies to fight Germany in what history now knows as World War I.

Thinking the war would be over soon, Expo officials leased all buildings and property to the government for use as a naval training center. The Navy wasted little time in adding more buildings to the grounds, including a hospital. In anticipation of a swift end to the war, the Expo commission returned all the postcards left in its possession back to the printer, where the centennial dates were blacked over and new wording was added to read, "Opens February 22nd, 1919." The war did end on November 11, 1918, but death did not. In the spring of 1918, history's most lethal influenza virus was born. Many historians now agree that this epidemic, commonly called the Spanish Flu, is perhaps the main reason WWI ended when it did. Throughout the last 10 months of 1918 and continuing through 1919 it flourished, killing as many as 100 million people, one-fifth of the world's population at that time. America's mortality rate for the years 1918 to 1919 was 850,000. Here in our state for the year 1918 alone the total was 30,437. With both state and national health officials warning the public every day to stay away from large crowds, attending a centennial exposition during this national crisis was out of the question. So after a grand effort and a sizeable expenditure, the Mississippi Centennial Exposition team's plans for a momentous extravaganza melted away to become only a dream.

In 1922, the U.S. Veterans Bureau purchased the Centennial Expo site and all the buildings. Eightyears later it became the Gulfport VA Hospital. In 1951, the last centennial expo building that was also the very first one constructed on the site--the administration building--was demolished.

Caption: In this architectural rendering of the Mississippi Building at the Mississippi Centennial Expo, the 54-foot Doric shaft is topped with a globe and a figure.

Caption: The Coliseum, the largest structure of the Expo, seated 5,000 in "comfortable opera chairs." The original dates of December 10,1917 to June 10,1918, are blacked over and the new proposed opening appears in the skyline. Mississippi's Expo officials moved into the newly completed administration buidling on January 15, 1917.
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Title Annotation:HERITAGE & CULTURE: Looking Back
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Nov 1, 2017
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