Lessons learned, but not heeded

JAMESTOWN -- In mid-July, before the dust had settled over memories of Queen Elizabeth II's visit and 2007's "Big Weekend," a reporter in Washington wrote that "not many people care once you get a few miles away from Williamsburg." The headline put it more bluntly: "Interest in Jamestown 2007 has waned." If so, we may ask why?

It is true that the fun faded when, after only two days, the tents folded, and also that in the interests of political correctness this year's show had been billed as a "commemoration" rather than a "celebration." Celebrations call for hats tossed in the air and commemorations for them to be somberly doffed. Commemorating is serious business. Educational, but not inherently light summer entertainment.

A century ago the 300th anniversary planners saw their mission rather differently. Summer-long fun for the family provided the sugar to sweeten a diet of industrial and agricultural accomplishments, black progress, and both military and naval prowess.

Located on a previously undeveloped waterfront tract in Norfolk, this was to be a national acclamation rather than a parochial pat on the back. Consequently, 22 states and several foreign countries contributed. Although the United Kingdom was noticeably absent, the Republic of Haiti was there, earning gold medals for its Panama hats and lace nightcaps.

Spread across 340 acres and spawning dozens of huge exhibition and state buildings, the 1907 Jamestown Tercentenary Exposition drew more than 2 million visitors who managed to get there by steamship, railroad and buggy.

For its Norfolk-based backers, it proved to be a financial disaster. Planning started too late, funds fell perilously short to the point where construction workers had to be laid off, and disagreements among the numerous committees threatened to sabotage the entire enterprise.

After it closed Nov. 30, the exposition's editor and historian, Charles Russel Keiley, declared his Official Blue Book of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition to be "impartial and tell[ing] the exact truth as the editor has seen the truth –– praising no one unduly and censuring no one without just cause." And there was plenty of cause.

More than 800 pages long and weighing over five pounds, the Blue Book provided both guidance and a warning for future planners. It ended by noting that repeated requests to the treasurer for an accounting had gone unanswered.

Fifty years later, both the National Park Service and the first of several state commissions concluded that the 350th anniversary in 1957 should be a more modest effort and be focused on Jamestown Island. In 1953 James J. Thompson, a surviving director of the 1907 exposition, urged that "we forego the luxury of temporary showplace buildings, and concentrate on the restoration of what is old and historic."

He went on to propose that "every town and every county in Virginia start now to plan toward what can be done by local people to make their own part and every part of the state a real participant in the 350th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement." The State Commission stressed that "As many latent shrines and tourist attractions should be developed by 1957 as possible."

In spite of that worthy intent the focus remained firmly between Jamestown and Yorktown, where the Park Service completed the linking Colonial Parkway, built new visitor centers, and created a scenic trail around Jamestown Island. Its archaeological excavations in the area known as New Towne led to the outlining of streets and buildings that, though not very exciting, helped establish it as the place at least near where the Jamestown story began. As no trace of the original fort-protected settlement had been found, it proved convenient for interpreters to tell visitors that the site had been eroded into the James River.

An estimated 2 million visitors were expected to attend during the Festival Park's eight-month run, and careful consideration was given to the scope of their interests. The business community believed that even before 1957 the area was "attracting and will continue to attract the mass class as well as the 'class' type which has hitherto been the primary type visiting Williamsburg."

A joint Park Service and Colonial Williamsburg committee turned a universal John Doe into a hypothetical Mr. Smith whom they judged to be "only mildly history-minded and inclined toward benevolent domination by his wife and two children, aged five and fourteen." This being the still-segregated South, there was no need to cater to Smiths of other races or national origins, or to the susceptibilities of Virginia's Indian survivors.

Several ill-advised plans to reconstruct buildings on the island were wisely vetoed, leaving the Commonwealth's commission free to build its own, state-supported Jamestown Festival Park. Along with galleries displaying relics of the Old and New Worlds, the park built a faux fort beside the already reconstructed 17th century glass factory, an "Algonquian-type Indian house called Chief Powhatan's Lodge," along with crowd-pleasing reconstructions of the first settlers' three ships.

Static exhibits in the park's Old World and New World pavilions ranged from models to mannequins in a serious effort to provide Mr. Smith (plus his pushy wife and kids) with an insight into what life was like way back then.

Another planning organization came at the problem from a different direction by commissioning playwright Paul Green to create a sweeping outdoor drama he named "The Founders," which played daily at the Lake Matoaka Cove Amphitheatre. In spite of a huge cast and a valiant attempt to encapsulate the Jamestown story from 1607 to 1622, the matinees-only attraction became uncharitably known as "The Flounders."

All in all, however, the 1957 celebration was adjudged a great public relations success and drew the projected 2 million to the Peninsula –– of whom 786,945 bought tickets.

Regrettably, Thompson's hope that every community in the state would participate to the extent of promoting its own heritage was only partially realized.

In 1995, therefore, remembering the delays and squabbling that threatened to kill the 1907 exposition before it opened, and the 17 years it took to mount the last World Fair at Seville that still failed to be ready on time, I believed that a 15-year planning start for 2007 would make sense, particularly if new highways needed to be built to receive the crowds. When I suggested to Sen. Hunter Andrews (D-1st), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, that he might spearhead preliminary planning, he told me to forget it. "You and I'll be dead by then," he said. He was only half right.

I then sought the help of my local delegate, who also dismissed the idea. "I discern little or no enthusiasm for the project among local officials," he told me, then added, "moving ahead on 2007 could spur unwanted growth in the Historic Triangle." Having paid for his lunch, that was not what I wanted to hear.

Later, much later, thanks largely to the interest of Gov. Jim Gilmore and his wife, Roxane, the General Assembly began to pour millions into the coffers of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation to erect a massive, prison-like building to house Old and New World exhibits.

New ships were built, the fort was refurbished and the Powhatan's Lodge reworked into a more authentic village. In the end, after all the money was spent, visitors were still being treated (albeit in high-tech) to the same history lesson that their parents had experienced 50 years before, minus Paul Green's mighty outdoor drama.

Other than the state's independent commitment to build a bicycle trail from Jamestown to Richmond (that has yet to get beyond the Chickahominy River), it had been left to the venerable Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities to provide the best reason to visit Jamestown in 2007. Even while the Big 400 was still 14 years into the future, the APVA realized it was time to reject the convenient "drowned fort theory" and take the lead in searching for it on land.

As we all now know, it was found. Thanks to the work of director Bill Kelso and his often sweltering crew, the discoveries made on the fort site and exhibited in the rather awkwardly named Archaearium are providing 2007 and the nation with what may well become its only enduring public legacy.

In finding and preserving Virginia's most important antiquity, the APVA is once again doing the Commonwealth a singular service. Ivor Noel Hume is retired as chief archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg. He wrote the play "Smith! Being the Life and Death of Cap'n John," produced by the Virginia Premiere Theatre at the Kimball Theatre.