A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: William Behringer’s 1904 visit to the St. Louis World’s Fair changed a young man’s life

by Jason French
Special to NKyTribune

Is there a time that you can point to in your life that, through some amazing experience, your life changed? One hundred years from now, could an historian look at your diary and determine that same conclusion? It seems to me that the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis was the point that changed everything for William Behringer (1884-1948).

William Behringer as a young man, circa early 1900s. (Courtesy of the Behringer-Crawford Museum)

William Behringer was born to German immigrants in West Covington, Kentucky in 1884. His childhood was not exceptional. Behringer’s family did not seem to have much money. He left school in the “sixth reader,” at the age of 13, to join “the battle of life.” On June 1, 1897, he started working in the varnish room at Bremenkamp Furniture Company, located at John and Wilson Streets in West Covington. It was not long, however, before young William found himself exploring several different employment opportunities.

William Behringer was initially employed in foundries for a few years. This ended in 1903 when he made the fateful decision to join a labor union, and management abruptly fired him. After he took some time off for a three-week hunting trip to Lincoln County, Kentucky, Behringer sought new employment. By early 1904, he held several jobs, from foundry work to unloading train cars for the B&O Railroad.

It is, however, a trip that Behringer took in July 1904 that is of interest to us today. It was in that month that he and a friend, Garfield Wallace, boarded a night train to St. Louis, Missouri to attend the World’s Fair.

The St. Louis World’s Fair was open from the last day of April through the middle of December 1904. In Behringer’s journals of this trip, he explains that the exposition covered 1,200 acres in St. Louis’s Forest Park. He further notes that roughly 200,000 people attended the fair daily, “which didn’t seem crowded at all except on the pike [an entertainment venue] at night where there was certainly a jam.”

Throughout his life, Behringer kept journals and scrapbooks. The one that covers his trip to the world’s fair was actually written later, in 1907, which may have been his first year of journaling. Either that or he compiled previous journals and experiences into this diary.

Foldout guide to the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904), from the later 1907 journal of William Behringer (Courtesy of Behringer-Crawford Museum)

Behringer’s 1904 World’s Fair trip gives us a window into his interests and personality. He figuratively walks us through the fairgrounds day by day, pointing out what captures his attention: technology, anthropology, archaeology, zoology and wildlife, to name just a few. His somewhat frenetic writing, often lacking proper punctuation and spelling, seems to reveal the process of an active mind that jumps around a lot.

Reading through the entries, it is easy to see that the 1904 World’s Fair was a spark that ignited a fire of curiosity and exploration in Behringer’s life. For example, he wrote of July 26th and 27th: “We passed the first day in the Government Building which was certainly grand,” next “we also went in the Fish Aquarium. Wireless Telegraphy cartridge manufacturing letter tube systems and lots of others thing[s].”

The exhibits must have seemed overwhelming for a poor young man from Northern Kentucky. “Mounted birds and fish[,] a skeleton of a whale 88 feet long. I can’t write everything.” The next day he noted “I woke up at 630 the next morning but I could not hardly wake up Wallace[;] we reached the grounds at 9 AM[;] we took in the Building Mines and Metallurgy, set where they had a statue of Vulcan a man 60 feet high” then “liberal arts building which didn’t interest me very much also the building of education and social economy[,] all little knickknack businesses and all handy appliances of day by day use[,] also the building of manufacturer which interested me very well.”

Behringer writes about how they ate very simply, more so than when they were at home. For example, he and his friend never drank coffee in St. Louis, and he said that they only drank one glass of beer during the entire trip.

Map of the St. Louis World’s Fair grounds (1904), from the later 1907 journal of William Behringer (Courtesy Behringer-Crawford Museum)

William Behringer’s description of his trip to the world’s fair gives us a rare chance to explore the inquisitive mind of a man who spent his life collecting and exploring environments around him and around the world. I can’t help but think that this trip may have been the spark that ignited it all.

Reading Behringer’s journals, you start to understand why he later collected what he did. This, in turn, gives us a better understanding of the founding collection of the Behringer-Crawford Museum. Without his thirst for knowledge and his desire to collect, we wouldn’t have a museum like Behringer-Crawford in Northern Kentucky and we would not have the treasures that we do. There is much that can be gleaned from this one week of his life, a story full of nuance and discovery.

His diary is truly one of the Behringer-Crawford Museum’s treasures.

Jason French is Curator of Collections at the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington. He is completing his M.A. in Public History at Northern Kentucky University.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment