In the early 1900s Cleveland had become one of the nation’s principal industrial cities, headlined by its steel industry, yet its industrial output had never been showcased for a public audience. The city’s business leaders wanted to change this in a way so big that Cleveland would leave its mark for years to come. The city hosted an industrial exposition in 1909 that showcased many new inventions and industrial advancements developed in the region, especially in Cleveland. Planned in 1908 by the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, the 1909 exposition was a much anticipated event and one that built upon the highly popular phenomenon of agricultural, industrial, and world’s expositions held in many cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Where Chicago had hosted, in 1893, a tremendous exposition so large that tens of millions of people visited from all over the world, Cleveland held a more modest event to highlight industry. Nor was Cleveland the first in Ohio to hold an industrial exposition. Cleveland had attempted such an event in the early 1880s but lost the event to Cincinnati in 1883. In the years after Cincinnati’s expo, Cleveland overtook the “Queen City” in industrial growth.
The Industrial Exposition of 1909 was held in a massive temporary building on the current site of City Hall. A bridge connected the imaginative canvas-and-pole structure with additional exhibits in the Central Armory. More than 250 exhibitors set up shop at the exposition, ranging from electrical showcases to fur tanning and tobacco presses. Although some of the exhibits at the exposition were from elsewhere around the country, most were from Ohio. This exposition was the site for some very intriguing exhibits, notably the world’s largest mahogany log and a “million-year-old” petrified turtle. In addition to natural exhibits were many mechanical ones. The expo featured many different types of engines that were powered by water, steam, air, and even gas and were able to produce many different amounts of horsepower ranging from 1/8th horsepower to ones that could produce 1,200 times that amount. The biggest attraction and the one people often enjoyed the most was the different size wheels that were powered by these engines and turned at various speeds from extremely slow to extremely fast.
In a sense, the Industrial Exposition was the first major showcase of Cleveland’s impressive manufacturing capacity, but its promise was not fully realized. Although it surely raised regional awareness about Cleveland’s innovations and manufactures, coverage in newspapers makes only anecdotal reference to the 1909 event in the years that followed. Perhaps it stimulated commerce, but arguably this was happening anyway as Cleveland entered the booming 1910s as the newly crowned “Sixth City.” If the 1909 exposition did not produce massive change in the city, however, it did offer a model for future expositions of Cleveland wares, including the Cleveland Electrical Exposition of 1914, Cleveland Industrial Exposition of 1927, Great Lakes Exposition in 1936-37, Mid America Exposition in 1946, and, later, a host of exhibitions held in the I-X Center.