When Knoxville was chosen to host the 1982 World’s Fair, many people across the country lampooned the decision. “What does this burg at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains know about hosting a first-class international event like a world’s fair?” a lot of the culturally elite asked. The skepticism even led a reporter for the Wall Street Journal to refer to the east Tennessee town as a “scruffy little city.”
Those were fighting words to the people of Knoxville. They used raw grit and their southern charms (as well as some shady business dealings by one of the fair’s organizers) to open the fair on-time in May 1982. During the six-month energy-themed expo, more than 11-million people from all over the globe fell in love with the quaint city on the banks of the Tennessee River.
Most traces of what’s believed by many to be the last successful world’s fair ever held are gone from downtown Knoxville. Some remnants like the iconic Sunsphere, a 266-foot observation tower topped with a multiple story gold ball, still hang on — and are occasionally mocked in pop culture.
Perhaps the most notable example is a 1996 episode of The Simpsons. Bart decides to create a fake driver’s license, rents a car and takes his buddies on a road trip to Knoxville, excited to attend the fair. When they arrive, the boys are disappointed to learn the fair ended 14 years earlier and the Sunsphere is being used as a place to store wigs. Nelson then throws a rock at the Sunsphere and it crashes down on top of their rental. For fans of the show, that’s the lasting image of the city’s most recognized landmark. A busted up gold ball littered with wigs.
Over the last 15 years or so, Knoxville has slowly evolved into a progressive city that embraces all cultures while keeping a strong grip on its heritage. The arts are big here and hardly a weekend goes by without an event being held on the grounds of the former World’s Fair or nearby Market Square, the historic hub of the city. Shops, restaurants and galleries have taken over many of the old buildings and you’ll see nods to the past everywhere you turn.
One thing about this city definitely hasn’t changed over time. Knoxvillians remain the most sincere, generous and welcoming people you’ll find anywhere. A little scruffiness never hurt anyone.
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