By Finley FitzGerald, Intern, Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site
The souvenir cup that rests on a bureau in the room that housed Medibel Bartley, Mr. Sam’s sister and the last of the Rayburn residents in the house, is rather inconspicuously placed atop the right-hand drawer amongst other miscellaneous items. It’s a modest piece, a small ceramic cup no bigger than a stout shot glass, more similar to a tiny flower pot in heft and form. Its adornment is simple—a basic chevron and dot pattern over a red base on the upper half of the piece—which leaves room for the stamped words “PAN AM EXPOSITION,” “MEXICAN HANDCRAFT,” and “DALLAS, TX” on the unglazed base.
The Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition was a World’s Fair hosted in Dallas from June 12 through October in 1937, a 4 1/2-month-long event that boasted attendees and participants from 21 countries in the Western Hemisphere. A year before, the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition celebrated 100 years since Texas had obtained its independence from Mexico. A huge success, the Centennial Exposition inspired a repeat performance in the form of the 1937 Pan-Am Exposition. Among those who assisted in bringing the 1937 Exposition to fruition was Sam Rayburn, who helped speed up the process of guaranteeing that Pan-American guest countries would be able to attend.
The 1937 Pan-Am Exposition managed to save money by reusing the buildings constructed by the Texas Centennial Exposition. All but one of the original 50 buildings were still standing and were ready to host the crowds of domestic and international guests. Some of the events and activities they housed included: “The Cavalcade of the Americas” and “The Road to Rio,” which theatrically presented “the discovery and development of the two American continents;” ice skating demonstrations that could be viewed while dining outdoors; classic carnival activities such as Ferris wheels, shooting galleries, tunnel rides, and more; stands where artisanal works and souvenirs from the visiting and hosting countries were sold; and the first (although not historically counted) Pan-American Games.
Initially named the Pan-American Olympics in 1937, the Pan-American Games is an event that’s lasted to this day. Only three sports were featured the first year—boxing, track and field, and soccer—and it captured relatively little attention at the Expo. However, the Pan-American Games grew and began occurring every four years in the months before the Summer Olympics. It now hosts 36 sports, nearly 400 events, and more than 5,000 competitors in countries from the American continents, and is counted among the largest multi-sport events in the world.
The Pan-American Games was not the only part of the 1937 Pan-Am Exposition that had an unexpectedly low turnout. On the whole, the 1937 Pan-Am Exposition was expected to hold the same number of exhibits, events, and receive the same number of visitors as the Centennial event the year before. Instead, it received only a third of the expected six million attendees, had $100,000 worth of exhibitor space left unsold, and sold only half of the 500,000 souvenir tickets anticipated for the opening. Despite these major and unanticipated obstacles, the 1937 Pan-Am Exposition closed its books with all bills paid.
There are no records in the Sam Rayburn House collection that indicate when the family might have visited the Exposition—or, in fact, if they visited at all. The cup might have been one of many souvenirs they brought home from the event, or it might have been a gift from friends or extended family who attended. But regardless of the specifics of when and how the cup was obtained, we know the most important piece of information available: the tie between the Rayburns and the modern marvel that was the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition.
Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site is located at 890 W. State Hwy. 56, two miles west of Bonham, in the Texas Lakes Trail Region. It tells the real story of Sam Rayburn, one of the most powerful and influential politicians of the 20th century, in his authentic 1916 home. Preserved as a period time capsule, the two-story home contains all original Rayburn furnishings.