When Mississippi turned 100 years old in 1917, the coastal counties got the biggest gift of all.
After state political debates and amazing footwork by leaders of Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties, a huge statewide birthday party was legislatively approved to be staged in Gulfport. It was to be fashioned after the World Fairs so internationally popular at that time.
The six-month-long Mississippi Centennial Exposition, as it was aptly named, unfortunately became The Centennial That Never Was.
War killed the birthday party.
But before that happened, much of the original 147-acre beachfront site was constructed with roads and walkways and attractive Spanish Mission-style buildings. Industries, businesses, other states wanting to tout their wares, even a few other countries, signed up to be part of the exposition. Innovative technology, the arts, agriculture, industry, food, an amazing electric White Way — those and so much more were planned.
‘Time Piece of Southern Progress’
One promotional brochure, titled “Mississippi Centennial Exposition 1917: The Time Piece of Southern Progress,” declared:
“There is a message here for you — tourist, homeseeker, investor, educator, fortune hunter or man with the spirit of wanderlust. The American frontier of today is Mississippi.”
An historical date to note
One hundred years ago today — on Jan. 15, 1917 — a giant step toward this party was taken when Centennial organizers moved into the newly constructed Administration Building to begin the work of making the party a reality. They, of course, had no idea of pending events that would affect their centennial grounds when the U.S. entered World War I three months later. Planning and construction continued at remarkable speed.
2017 is declared Mississippi’s Bicentennial Year, and official 200th-year events are planned in Gulfport, Oxford and Jackson, with lots of other events around the state. Also expect new books, news articles, history media productions and videos, museum exhibits and more for this monumental Mississippi anniversary that culminates Dec. 10, the actual date in 1817 when Mississippi became the nation’s 20th state.
Will not be ignored
This time, the landmark state birthday will not be ignored as it was, by necessity, 100 years ago. The Mississippi Historical Society plans its annual meeting in Gulfport this year in early March to coincide with Bicentennial events on the Coast, some planned at Centennial Plaza in Gulfport.
The 92-acre plaza is a large chunk of the original site of the Exposition planned to open in time for Mississippi’s 100th birthday. That piece of land, probably more than any other, reflects how war, the military complex, hurricanes, tourism and development can shape Coast history and growth.
U.S. entry into World War I
The beachfront site has come full circle from private Gulfport homestead, to Centennial site, to World War I Navy camp to Veteran’s Affairs medical complex to city of Gulfport development site. These are all stories that likely will unfold in more depth during Mississippi’s bicentennial year.
Meanwhile, let’s step back to 1917, a year of such promise for coastal Mississippi. Instead of the Centennial Expo spurring an expected growth in tourism and business, however, the impetus became war.
The Coast 100 years ago
In 1917 the nearly 66,000 residents of coastal Mississippi had little memory of what war was actually like. The Civil War had ended more than a half-century earlier and the Spanish-American War two decades earlier.
When Centennial Expo organizers moved into their Administrative offices on Jan. 15, they could not know, though some might guess, that their ambitions would be thwarted by the U.S. joining Europeans in The Great War, as it was then called.
Newspaper readers knew Americans, especially politicians and the wealthy, debated war entry. They read of horrendous number of deaths as the so-called Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) battled the Allied Powers (United Kingdom, Italy, France, Russia and Japan).
Then on April 6, they learned that President Woodrow Wilson declared the U.S. would join the Allied Powers. This newspaper and others were soon filled with names of men headed to war. The Coast home-bound found ways to help, including knitting sweaters, socks and mufflers for Allies in horrendously muddy or frozen trenches.
The Coast became a natural for the building of the necessary war vessels as a fledgling shipbuilding industry blossomed. Camp Shelby, established in DeSoto National Forest three months after Wilson’s war declaration, was a training ground for the National Guard and Army, and it remains vital today.
Party site transforms for the military
All this World War I military-industrial complex that gave the Coast an unexpected economic boost was still “down the road” in Jan. 15, 1917. Those excited about Centennial Exposition prospects could not know that in the final tally, the 17 million war deaths worldwide would include 118,000 American civilian and military dead, with another 204,000 wounded.
The U.S. was involved officially only 19 months of the 52-month world war that stretched from July 1914 to November 1918. But that was time enough to understand the world picture, even without today’s television and Internet. The Coast people of 1917 didn’t need that in-your-face technology to know it was no time to hold a big birthday party
As the fighting wound down and Mississippi’s actual 100th anniversary date neared, the world and the U.S. faced another scary foe, a Spanish Flu Pandemic that claimed at least 675,000 more Americans, a larger number than died on batttlefields. Coast headstones affirm the deadly local effects of flu.
The influenza outbreak likely would have drastically cut the number of Mississippi Centennial participants and out-of-state visitors, but that is a moot point.
Another mission for the plaza
Five months after moving into the Admin building, Expo organizers learned the Centennial grounds would become the Gulfport U.S. Naval Training Camp. The seven completed buildings were soon surrounded by military tents, then hastily constructed military buildings.
The Navy camp was deactivated in 1921, and soon became a hospital for the U.S. Veterans Bureau. The Exposition-era buildings were unsuitable for medical use and eventually replaced, with the last original Expo building razed in 1951. Ironically, that was the same building used by Centennial planners in 1917.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.