It was an exciting time for Philadelphians in 1926. That’s the year the city put on an international exposition, the ‘Sesquicentennial,’ in commemoration of our nation’s 150th anniversary. Every night was filled with fireworks and Mardi Gras-style parades. Everywhere there was food, music, singing and dancing. And at the entrance to it all was a giant Liberty Bell in the middle of a street, sparkling with brilliant lighting. I was a 6-year-old with eyes wide open in wonder, and this was my Disney World!
My family lived in South Philadelphia, and it was a short trolley ride to the exposition. My immigrant parents made the trip with their five children often during the exposition, which lasted from May 31 to Dec. 1.
Before then, entertainment had only reached me through our little radio and Victrola. At the exposition, I was amazed by the crowds, the lights, the ice cream and sodas. And that giant Liberty Bell fascinated me. When lighted, the 80-foot wonder was visible the length of the street.
At first, proposals for the exposition site were disputed, but when the city council voted to build a municipal stadium in South Philadelphia, things settled in its favor.
Before any construction could begin, however, some mammoth engineering had to be performed. The marshy land on which the exposition buildings would sit had to be drained and filled. Streets were surveyed, graded and paved, sewers and water and electric lines installed, and mosquitoes were brought under control.
The exposition opened with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover addressing those present. A concert by the 108th Field Artillery Band, aerial exhibitions and fireworks entertained the public; a luncheon, dinner and Inaugural Ball were offered to special guests.
On Flag Day, June 14, troops from the original 13 states marched in a parade; a musical pageant titled ‘America’ was presented on June 24.
President Coolidge delivered the Fourth of July address, and on September 23, the ex-Marine boxer Gene Tunney won the Heavyweight Title from Jack Dempsey at the new stadium.
As my family walked along the fairgrounds, I remember looking with awe at the big buildings and pavilions and at the elaborate statues and artistic sculptures that lined both sides of the street.
I also can remember that the exposition wiped out the little farms that early immigrants worked south of the city. The land there was called ‘the dumps.’ My father and uncle worked some areas that were suitable for farming and built little shacks in each plot.
The immigrants – most of them Italian – respected each other’s area, and the city allowed them to develop the land that was uninhabitable. My father and uncle always brought me along to see the vegetable gardens they grew. But circa 1922, the politicians forced them out. They wanted the land for the exposition.
In the end, the exposition failed to attract anticipated crowds. Constant rain contributed to the poor attendance. About a half million fewer people came than had viewed the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.
In spite of its bad press and financial troubles, the exposition was not without value to the city. Albert M. Greenfield, a prominent real estate developer, thought that ‘the development of the extreme southern end of the city, now possible because of the work done to remove the marshy areas, farms and dumps, helped the city to grow and to improve the health and environment of the many thousands who now make their home in south Philadelphia.’
Beautiful homes and distribution centers now occupy the land where the exposition took place.
I never did get to see Disney World. But I probably will never get to see another 80-foot Liberty Bell, either.