Conceived as a showcase for the Pacific Northwest and northern Pacific Rim countries, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition in Seattle became one of the most celebrated regional events of the early twentieth century. Many international participants, states, counties, cities, organizations, groups, and corporations all wanted to be involved. San Juan, a small island county in Washington's far northwest, was eager to promote its beauty, agricultural excellence, fishing and lime industries, and development potential. W. J. Court (1840-1913), a fruit farmer from Orcas Island with considerable experience in organizing agricultural exhibits, was chosen to lead the effort. He worked diligently to raise funds and encourage local residents to participate, and served during the exposition as an energetic, articulate advocate for San Juan County. Court made sure that the county booth was always attractive and visitors from around the world stopped by to view the exhibit and learn about the islands. July 14th was enthusiastically celebrated as San Juan Day at the exposition, and special ceremonies at the Washington State Building marked the occasion. County residents won awards in a variety of competitions, and it was generally agreed that the county's participation in the exposition was a success.
An Idea ...
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large expositions around the country provided educational and recreational opportunities for visitors to celebrate both the history and the growing economic, industrial, social, and cultural development of the country in the years following the Civil War. The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 (also known as the Chicago World's Fair) provided a pattern for later undertakings in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 and St. Louis in 1904. By the following year plans were already underway for the 1907 tri-centennial celebration of the first English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, while far to the Northwest, preparations were being completed for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition to take place from June to October, 1905, in Portland, Oregon.
One of those involved in gathering contributions for the Portland exposition was Godfrey Chealander (1868-1953), a resident of Alaska and special commissioner of the federal government. It was his task to collect items for inclusion in the Alaskan exhibit. He felt, however, that Alaska was not going to garner the attention it deserved, tucked away in a corner as a minor display. But then:
"Chealander had an idea ... He sat down in the lobby of Nome's Golden Gate Hotel, picked up a pen, and wrote a letter to his friend John Edward Chilberg. This was the letter that started everything. It opened with a bang: 'An Alaskan exposition for Seattle in 1907 -- how does the idea strike you?'"("Godfrey Otto Chealander").
... Moves Toward Fruition
John Chilberg (1867-1954) was a prominent Seattle businessman who had had a remarkable career that included work as a merchant, miner, master of a coastal steamship, builder, realtor, and bank vice president. He had a long interest in Alaska and its development, born of his time as a steamship operator in the far North between Dawson and St. Michael's on the Yukon River. In 1905 he was serving as president of the Alaska Club in Seattle, and Chealander's letter sparked the beginning of conversations in the Seattle business community that would lead in May 1906 to the incorporation of the Alaska-Yukon Exposition with John Chilberg as its president. Shortly thereafter it was decided to expand the exposition to include Pacific Rim countries, and the word "Pacific" was added to the exposition's corporate title.
Organizers saw an exposition as a perfect opportunity to bring the Pacific Northwest to the greater attention of the rest of the United States and, indeed, the world. A San Juan County newspaper summarized the intentions succinctly: "The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition [will be] held to commemorate the achievements of man, the development of the West, the discovery of the great Goldfields in Alaska. It [will be] designed to show the world the resources of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and present the opportunity for investment of capital and labor, and to open up new lines for endeavor" ("Prominence ..."). Extensive planning was soon underway for all of the many aspects of the exposition, which was scheduled to be held in 1909 -- from June 1 through October 16 -- so as not to compete with the 1907 Jamestown exposition.
After consideration of several Seattle-area sites, it was decided that a then-undeveloped portion of the University of Washington campus offered the best possible venue. John C. Olmsted (1852-1920) of Olmsted Brothers, a firm of noted landscape architects based in Brookline, Massachusetts, was chosen to design the grounds of the exposition. The approximately-200-acre site extended from 41st Street south to the shores of Lake Union and Lake Washington, taking advantage of the spectacular views of the water, Mount Rainier, and still-forested areas. At the same time, design work for the numerous buildings was underway under the direction of John Gates Howard of the San Francisco architectural firm of Howard & Holloway; a neoclassical theme was chosen as the unifying style. Groundbreaking took place on June 1, 1907, exactly two years from the announced opening date of the exposition. It was a grand occasion with three hours of speeches and ceremonies, attended by more than 15,000 people.
San Juan County Considers Participation
While national, state, and other committees were well into planning for their participation, exhibit space was still being sought by numerous groups. In March 1908, the president of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce in Whatcom County wrote to San Juan and Skagit counties noting that an organization had been formed to explore how the three Northwest Washington counties might work together to procure space at the exposition for suitable exhibits promoting their area. His argument was compelling:
"There is no question in my mind as to the advantage to be derived by a proper exhibit at Seattle. In connection therewith, occasional steamboat excursions up this way, including your leading island points, will bring new settlers and new capital which is what we need. I have no patience with those people who think the country has plenty of people in it now and that it is wrong to ask more to come ... There are so many opportunities here for people of moderate means where they can do better than in the East, that it seems too bad that more cannot know of them" ("Counties Should Exhibit ...").
In April, A-Y-P Exposition organizers announced that 50 percent of the entire exhibit space had been allocated and that the remainder was expected to be allotted within 90 days. Time was becoming short, and a decision concerning San Juan County's participation needed to be made. At an informal meeting of county businessmen and officials, a representative of the South Bellingham Industrial Club explained the general plan, reviewed the benefits that participation would bring to the area, and discussed the proposed organization for planning. How to finance the exhibit and its maintenance throughout the months of the exposition was a question.
The San Juan Islander (SJI), a local newspaper, suggested, "if the [San Juan County] commissioners should levy [the state-authorized one-half-mill tax on assessed valuation for 1906], a trifle over $600 would be realized and the average taxpayer would need a magnifying glass to detect the increase in his tax 'burden'" ("Shall We ...?"). Additional funds, it was thought, could be raised by private subscription. The paper went on to note that the opportunity for effective advertising to an enormous group of exposition visitors was not likely to come again. It all seemed a chance to promote the county that should not be missed. An association of San Juan with Whatcom and Skagit counties for the purpose of coordinated efforts to exhibit at the exposition was formed in May with 35 trustees apportioned among them. The membership fee was $1.
In July, the county commissioners voted to provide the one-half-mill levy to finance the county's exhibit. The local newspapers noted this support with approval, and the editor of the San Juan Islander offered his opinion that the exhibit should feature numerous photographs illustrating scenes of farming and industries including fisheries, and "especially numerous enlargements of pictures of the beautiful scenery of our island-studded waters ... and a grand panorama from the summit of Mt. Constitution. Such an exhibit would attract hundreds and probably thousands of visitors to the islands and would be of incalculable value to the county" (SJI, July 11, 1908). The commissioners entrusted the work of organizing the San Juan County exhibit to W. J. Court.
W. J. Court
William J. Court was an obvious choice for the task of arranging and overseeing the San Juan County exhibit. A resident of Orcas Island since 1891, Court owned a 20-acre fruit ranch, raising primarily apples, pears, and cherries. He was active in his church, serving as its trustee and as the superintendent of the West Sound Sabbath School; he also served as president of the West Sound Literary Club. He was a loyal member of the Republican Party, running unsuccessfully for assessor in 1900 and again, successfully, in 1902, and he was known as having "tremendous interest in the development of the country and ... generously assist[ing] all movements having its advancement for their object" ("W. J. Court").
As early as 1901 Court had organized San Juan County exhibits at the Whatcom County Fair, where he assured islanders that he would "endeavor to arrange a creditable exhibit from this county and will see that all products sent to the fair ... properly labeled and marked with the owner's name, are suitably displayed and due credit given" ("East Sound"). Also in 1901 Court organized, "in his usual enthusiastic and thorough manner" (SJI, May 30, 1901), a display at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo that included wheat, oats, peas, tobacco, dried fruits, and samples of pottery clay and quartz. He had long been an advocate of San Juan County having its own county fair, and in 1906 he spearheaded efforts to form the San Juan County Fair Association and organize the first fair that fall. A Bellingham reporter declared that "W. J. Court is a loyal booster for San Juan County wherever he is," and quoted Court as saying, "Our islands can produce as good fruit, vegetables, hay and grain as can be grown anywhere in the state" ("Court Boosting ...").
Shortly after his appointment by the commissioners in July 1908, Court met with Northwest Exposition Association representatives from Whatcom and Skagit counties to select a space for their exhibit in the Agriculture Building where county exhibits were to be housed. It was agreed that the three counties would have separate exhibits but that the representatives would work cooperatively on arrangements and management issues. The space chosen by Court (17 feet by 25 was allotted; ultimately Court turned some of it over to Whatcom County) was close to the center of the hall and adjoined the spaces for Whatcom and Skagit counties and the State Agriculture College. Agriculture was going to be a substantial focus of the A-Y-P Exposition as a whole, with half the space being devoted to agricultural displays. One islander complacently opined that "inasmuch as the farmer is the leading individual factor in the upbuilding of the West, it is most fitting that more attention be paid to the farmer and his interests than any other feature" ("Prominence ...").
Preparations Get Underway
It was clear from the outset that the proceeds from the levy would not be sufficient to fund the exhibit through the run of the exposition and that private subscriptions would be needed. In October, the county commissioners authorized Fannie L. Driggs (1862-1925) to serve as assistant to Court in collecting funds and exhibits. She was to be paid $2.50 per day "for time actually spent in such work, such allowance to be paid out of funds collected" ("Commissioners' Proceedings," October 17, 1908). Meanwhile, local newspapers were beginning to increase coverage of the coming exposition with weekly articles and photos of the buildings under construction and the grounds being prepared. To encourage interest in county participation, Court installed a sample exhibit in the county courthouse in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. By January 1909 more than $100 had been raised just on San Juan Island, and Court and his assistant felt that the fundraising goal of $400 would be easily met.
Court was determined that San Juan County should have an exhibit to show the county to best advantage. He said he "would like each community to have some characteristic exhibit, some means of attracting attention to each particular locality," and he went on to note that "This can only be done by the people themselves taking the matter in hand, as they are the ones most interested and most fully informed about the products of the different districts" (SJI, April 9, 1909). He had already requested that islanders start sending grasses, grains, minerals, fishing exhibits and "anything else that will add to the attractiveness or utility of the county display" (SJI, March 19, 1909).
Proceeds from an April lecture, illustrated with island shoreline scenes and accompanied by songs, were to fund the county's inclusion in a booklet being prepared to advertise the state of Washington. As the A-Y-P Exposition's opening day approached, Court sent out an urgent call for contributions for the county exhibit and expressed a special "desire for products of the season, strawberries, rhubarb, etc. ... There is no better rhubarb grown anywhere than here and a liberal display of that should be made" (SJI, May 28, 1909).
The Exposition Begins
The opening day of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was attended by almost 80,000 people; Seattle declared the day to be a city holiday. People poured through the 43 turnstiles as soon as the gates opened although many buildings and amusements remained closed until after the official ceremonies, which began with a military parade at 9:30 a.m. Promptly at noon, exposition president Chilberg notified U.S. President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) in Washington, D.C., that the fair could begin, and Taft pressed a telegraph key richly encrusted with Alaskan gold, sending a signal to proceed with the opening. A Friday Harbor resident reported that Taft's signal was the catalyst "for general pandemonium, from every whistle, bell, and siren of the great manufacturers and steamers the sound was taken up, and the great throng gave vent to their enthusiasm. From the top of a giant flag staff 250 feet in height, the largest American flag ever made, broke loose and the exposition city was buried in a cloud of flags, banners, and gayly [sic] colored bunting" ("Exposition ...").
Throughout the exposition, attendees from around the country and the world came to view the San Juan County exhibit. Signatures of visitors from more than 25 states and from Australia, the Philippines, India, Mexico, France, Egypt, and Canada were recorded in the booth register in just the first month. And, of course, San Juan County residents were especially eager to see their exhibit. Everyone was delighted with the quality of the display. The San Juan Islander report was positively effusive:
"Too much praise cannot be given W. J. Court for San Juan County's fine exhibit ... Taking up most of the wall space in the background are many enlarged and artistically arranged views of different parts of the county, the work of J. A. McCorm[i]ck, the well-known scenic [photographer], ... An old cedar stump filled with a big swarm of honeybees industriously at work, stands immediately in front of the entrance to the booth and serves as a centerpiece for the exhibit" ("San Juan's Exhibit ...").
And the exhibit included beautifully displayed examples of the best of the grains, grasses, and fresh produce of the islands as well as many artifacts of the county's industries and pioneer days loaned for the exposition by residents of the islands. Every week's local paper listed the many islanders who were visiting Seattle and the exposition.
The Agriculture Building in which the San Juan County exhibit was located was one of the largest buildings in the A-Y-P Exposition, centrally situated at the Arctic Circle, which served as the focal point for the entire plan of the grounds. The curved building, overlooking a dramatic geyser and pool, was in the French Renaissance style with a circular pergola and Ionic columns. In keeping with the theme of the exposition as "the ivory city," the building was a soft ivory color to fit more gently into the natural setting of the grounds and surrounding scenic area than the stark white buildings of other expositions. It covered 60,000 square feet with space for exhibits of the newest in agricultural developments as well as exhibits from Washington counties, like San Juan County, that did not have buildings of their own. The main gallery included displays on food and beverage processing, and a railroad exhibit illustrated the transport of produce around the state. Like most of the buildings at the exposition, it was built as a temporary structure for the duration of the A-Y-P only, and was demolished shortly after the exposition ended.
W. J. Court was kept busy in the San Juan County booth, assuring that perishable produce was replaced when necessary and the display always arranged attractively, while warmly greeting visitors and extolling the virtues of the islands to all inquirers. He had very much wanted to have a handout booklet produced to feature the beauties and benefits of life in the islands, but money for its production was slow in coming. Not until August were copies published, and then only a few thousand were available for distribution. The text was written by O. H. Culver (1862-1941), Court's friend, fellow Republican loyalist, and publisher of the San Juan Islander. There were also 36 photos by J. A. McCormick illustrating the scenery, homes, farmlands, and industries of San Juan County. Printed on heavy enameled book stock in three shades of color and a linen finish, the booklet was very attractive, expensively produced, and of high quality, if late in arriving for distribution and inadequate in quantity.
San Juan Day
While waiting for the booklet to be finished, Court turned his attention to the festivities for San Juan Day, July 14th. Each day of the A-Y-P Exposition (except Sundays) highlighted one or more states, counties, organizations, or groups -- with Octogenarian Day, Grocers Day, University of Washington Alumni Day, Esperanto Day, and Suffrage Day, among many others, as examples. San Juan County shared its "Special Day" with the National Council of Women, the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen, and the National Lumber Manufacturers' Association.
With his usual energy, Court arranged for special steamer fares to encourage islanders' attendance, worried that not enough advertising was being done, and assisted with arrangements for the program, which was to take place at 2:30 p.m. in the Washington State Building. A committee of eight men (Court served as chairman) from the three largest islands in the county planned the activities, and six women were invited to serve as official hostesses. Official exposition greetings, speeches, and music by a violin soloist and the San Juan Military Band were scheduled.
The county, which had a total population of less than 3,600 at the time, was represented that day by 400 to 500 islanders who attended the ceremonies and proudly toured the San Juan County exhibit. The Seattle Times, after interviewing Court and noting the day's festivities, commented:
"This little county boasts of the greatest production of lime on the Pacific coast. It also has something to talk about in the line of fisheries, in agriculture, and in food raising, and its greatest boast is that there are no convicts in its jail, no barefoot children, no almshouse and no tramps on its islands" ("San Juan Sends Boosters ...").
Maintaining the Exhibit
Throughout the remainder of the exposition, Court struggled to keep island farmers motivated to send replenishments of fresh produce. The San Juan Islander editor was clearly exasperated:
"The San Juan county exhibit ... is by no means what it ought to be, and the fault lies wholly with the farmers and fruit growers of the county ... It behooves the people of San Juan County to get busy and to exert every possible effort to keep Mr. Court well supplied ... Another opportunity may not offer for years to come. Don't let it pass. Get Busy!" ("Don't Miss ...").
Keeping a good supply of fresh cherries was of special concern, as San Juan County was in competition with Whatcom County for the exposition's first-place award. Even before the final judging, San Juan County cherries had received a singular honor when the visiting Japanese Commissioner chose to send a box of Orcas Island Royal Ann cherries to the Emperor of Japan. Court pleaded for more produce: "Remember that every little bit helps. A box of nice red apples, a small basket of tomatoes, or peaches, apricots, plums or other fruit; even a little basket of nice clean eggs ..." ("Islander Get Busy ..."). Items, properly labeled, could be left at the newspaper office or nearest boat landing for pickup and transport by steamer to the exposition.
The exposition's last day was October 16, 1909. San Juan County had indeed won first-place honors for its cherries, and Court was presented with a magnificent blue banner with fancy gold fringe, border, and lettering with the seal of the exposition in its center surrounded by a circle of gold. The editor of the Friday Harbor Journal observed with a smile, "Those who know Mr. Court as a man of democratic ways, will be surprised to note the aristocratic turn this banner has given to his life. It is hardly safe to approach him in the old familiar manner" ("Beats the World ...").
The banner was displayed in the county courthouse; in 2018, it still hung there and bottles of the award-winning cherries and peaches could still be seen at the San Juan Historical Museum. Islanders won awards in many categories: fruit, grains and grasses, vegetables, lime rock, leaf tobacco, oil and watercolor paintings, collections display, and for a Battenberg lace collar, a knit bedspread, a lunch cloth, a centerpiece, scroll-saw work, and lapidary work. The Journal editor published a complete list of all prizes won by county residents, while commenting that "the record is a good one, and that it is not better is due to the indifference of producers of the county, who might have increased the quantity of our excellent products if not the superiority" ("Full List ...").
The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition had been a tremendous success. During 138 days, more than 3,700,000 people had explored its impressive buildings and exhibits, viewed its spectacular gardens, strolled its handsome lanes, and enjoyed the many restaurants, amusements, lectures, musical offerings, and programs. Court's final task as manager of the San Juan County exhibit was to put together a commemorative display at the courthouse in Friday Harbor. A few specimens of fruit, grains, and grasses were turned over to the Great Northern Railway to be used for exhibition purposes. And then San Juan County's participation in this splendid exposition, and W. J. Court's tireless efforts on the county's behalf and dedicated exhibit management quietly came to an end.