Way back in 1976, Cincinnati’s Downtown Council announced a brand-new event. With less than a month’s notice, the Council decreed that Oktoberfest would occupy Fountain Square and Government Square for a weekend that October. The Enquirer editorialized support for the idea but noted that the proposal was “overdue.” Northern Kentucky, the Germania Society, and Kings Island had all entered the gemütlichkeit market years earlier. Today, of course, we know that Zinzinnati now hosts America’s largest Oktoberfest with attendance surpassing 700,000 revelers annually.
Hardly mentioned at the time, in fact, not mentioned at all, is that Oktoberfest filled a gap in the Queen City calendar that was once occupied by a major annual celebration known as the Fall Festival. Long ago, when Cincinnati was still warily warming up to its Teutonic inhabitants, autumn was capped each year by the city’s largest extravaganza, the annual Fall Festival, which filled Washington Park for a couple of weeks at the end of September and beginning of October.
Cincinnati’s Fall Festival grew out of a tradition of autumnal celebrations. The Saengerbund, one of the choral organizations that helped create the May Festival, sponsored a Fall Festival as early as the 1870s and annual events to benefit the Catholic and Protestant orphanages emerged about the same time, but these were all confined to a single day or single evening. The Ohio Mechanics Institute sponsored a number of very successful industrial expositions from the 1870s through the 1890s to highlight the city’s manufacturing prowess.
Community spirit really ramped up in 1900 when the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce got involved. In January of that year, the Chamber announced plans for a fall festival and exposition of several weeks duration. The word “exposition” maintained a link to the previous industrial showcases, but the emphasis was on festival and festivities. Every year from 1900 to 1906, grander and more spectacular carnivals blossomed at Washington Park and Music Hall, drawing visitors numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The financial panic of 1907 placed those celebrations on hold until 1910 when a brief revival of the old industrial galas, the Ohio Valley Exposition, entertained the region for most of September and featured the premier of a specially commissioned opera, “Paoletta,” by Pietro Floridia.
One hundred years ago, Cincinnati again endeavored to revive the autumn celebrations of the past by staging an elaborate Fall Festival, again centered on Music Hall and encompassing the old City Hospital grounds across Central Parkway and the entirety of Washington Park. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [6 January 1923], a major emphasis for the revitalized festival would be electricity:
“Superb electrical illuminations and ornamentation of the jewel and flood light types will be among the features of the display. Washington Park will be devoted in great part to this electrical display and multicolored beams will be thrown into the heavens at that point.”
The Cincinnati Post [27 August 1923] echoed this theme in its coverage of the first day of the Fall Festival:
“The children who visit the electrical display in Electric Hall will be fortunate. Electricity has just begun to make great strides in everything. The fact that these boys and girls will be able to see how electrical appliances are manufactured, how to operate them and to keep them in working order, will be of great benefit.”
At the center of the exposition was a $50,000 “Tower of Jewels” erected in Washington Park, bathed in colored floodlights throughout the evening hours and surrounded by miles of tinted party lights in celebration of the electrical age.
There was one huge component missing from the 1923 Fall Festival – beer. This was the dawn of Prohibition and the newspapers were full of breathless reports of raids on scofflaw saloons, including a Cincinnati establishment that had converted one of its gas fixtures into a moonshine dispensing spigot. Previous Cincinnati fall festivals trumpeted their selection of fine local brews, served up in booths decorated to look like British pubs or German Bierhäuser. Also absent were any of the unsavory sideshows associated with prior festivals:
“There will be no ballyhoo or carnival shows or other objectionable features of a festival, according to W.C. Culkins, who is Secretary of the organization.”
Despite Mr. Culkins’ assurances, the Law and Order Committee of the Cincinnati Federation of Churches announced that they would lodge official complaints against any sort of entertainments on Sundays during the two-week run of the Fall Festival because, well, this was Cincinnati and of course someone had to object if anyone was having fun.
The 1923 Fall Festival kicked off inauspiciously when a major storm blew through the city on opening day, with hail “the size of walnuts” reported. Nasty weather plagued the two-week run of the exposition. In spite of the almost daily rain showers, the crowds were good-sized and appreciative, even folks who were deaf and blind. Samuel Dean, of 1228 Vine Street, was, in fact, both sightless and hearing impaired, but reportedly enjoyed the exhibits described to him by his wife tapping details onto the palm of his hand.
Crowds thrilled to high-wire and trapeze acts at the hippodrome built on the vacant lot left by the demolition of the old City Hospital across Central Parkway from Music Hall. The formal garden planted by nurseryman William Natorp got a lot of traffic, as did the electrical train system set up by the Southern Railway to illustrate the 3,000 miles of track served by that system. The Cincinnati and Suburban Telephone Company presented a series of “playlets,” starring actual operators demonstrating how to make telephone calls. Concerts by local singers and musicians including Helen Kessing, Helen Nugent, Richard Pavey and Herbert O. Schatz filled the Music Hall auditorium and the Hippodrome theater.
The Cincinnati Post, while dutifully promoting the Fall Festival along with all the other Cincinnati daily newspapers, managed to deflect most of its coverage to its own entrant in the new Miss America competition. The Post selected Olga Emrick, age 22, of 913 Vine Street, as Miss Cincinnati. Miss Emrick spent most of her time before traveling to Atlantic City at the Fall Festival, giving the Post the opportunity to promote her and the exposition in the same articles. (Miss Emrick lost to Mary Katherine Campbell, the only Miss America to win the title twice.)
With no beer or booze for sale, there were no arrests for public drunkenness, but the pickpockets were out in force. A special detail of plain-clothes detectives led by Cincinnati’s celebrity sleuth Cal Crim escorted a dozen or so to the hoosegow almost every day.
When the Fall Festival ended, attendance topped 300,000 and included the governors of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Plans were announced for a repeat of the Fall Festival at some future date, which never arrived, with or without ballyhoo.