A GIRL VISITS THE METHODIST MISSIONS CENTENARY, 1919
Airplanes and dirigibles, exotic animals, fireworks, live stage shows, a carnival, parades, a Wild West show, a 100 piece all-trombone choir, and a gargantuan 150' tall movie screen don't sound much like Sunday School but that was the scene when Methodists staged a colossal month-long world's fair at The Ohio State Fairgrounds in the summer of 1919. The Methodist Mission Centenary drew tens of thousands of American Methodists to Columbus. The Centenary intended to celebrate a century of Methodist missionary activities, Allied victory in the World War, and the passage of Prohibition while calling Methodists to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the new century.
That summer, Edith M. Smith was a 19 year-old farmgirl living in rural Crawford County in NE Ohio with her parents, brother Arden (20), younger sister Helen (18), and much younger brother Paul (9). Edith and her sister worked as schoolteachers and doubtlessly helped out on the farm much of the time.
On a warm Tuesday, July 8, Edith, her mother, youngest brother, aunt, and several friends and neighbors made the 70 mile journey from Crawford County to Columbus to attend the Centenary.
Edith recorded her visit moment-by-moment for her sister back in Bowling Green. Think of it as a series of live Tweets from a century ago.
Edith's postcard reads:
Mamma, Paul, Aunt Loretta, Bernice, Fergusons, Mr. and Mrs. Huddle, Fern and Arthur, and I came to the Cen this morning. It is simply grand. We are in the grandstand now ready to watch the Wild West Show.
I did not get to finish this at the grandstand. We are now at the Big Tent to hear the Trombone Choir. It is surely great. They are first playing “Lead Thou Me On” and “Pass Me not O Gentle Savior.”
We did not get to hear the Pageant today. But might tomorrow.
Our room is one block from the fairground. Paul is surely having a good time. He surely is beside himself sometimes. He rode on a camel.
We are going home tomorrow eve or Thursday. We are also planning to go through the capitol.
Bernice has such a headache. Her and I were together all day today.
It is 7:45 and we are at the grandstand again. It seats thousands upon thousands of people. I never saw so many people in all my life and, just think, they are all Methodists.
After it gets dark, we are going to see pictures thrown on a screen of white boards in front of the grand screen which is 150 ft. square or it is bigger than the east side of our barn.
Wild West Show- The mixing of religion and popular entertainment was one of the themes of the Centenary. Wild West shows with riding, roping, trick-shooting, and recreated scenes from the frontier were presented daily at the grandstand.
Trombone Choir- A novelty group, the 100 Trombone Choir, consisting entirely of trombones, appeared daily on the grounds and was very popular with Centenary celebrants.
The Pageant- A religious pageant, The Wayfarer, was the hit of the Centenary. It sold out nightly. Ticket-seekers lined up before dawn. On weekends, hundreds would have to be turned away. The Wayfarer was a spectacle in every sense of the word. Presented in the new 8,000 seat Coliseum building, on a stage 110' x 75', The Wayfarer featured a cast of over 1,000 performers, including leads from the New York theaters, a 76-piece orchestra, a choir of 1,200 singers, and sundry live animals. Elaborate costumes, detailed sets, and the largest sky cyclorama in the world helped present scenes spanning 2,500 years and traveling from ancient Babylon to the battlefields of the Great War to New Jerusalem. Lighting and sound technicians used the very latest theater technology to tell the epic story.
Camel- The centerpiece of the the Centenary were exhibits from the mission fields. Accompanying the recreations of villages and cities from Asia and Africa were exotic animals such as elephants, water buffalo, zebu cattle, and camels.
Screen of white boards- A gargantuan motion picture screen constructed in the infield of the racetrack for the Centenary. At 135 feet wide by 146 feet tall, it was one of the largest screens ever built and about twice the size of the largest drive-in screens of the 1950s. With the aid of a specially constructed projector, slide shows and motion pictures were exhibited on the vast screen to audiences of up to 75,000 nightly.
More about the Methodist Missions Centenary coming soon.