In 1968, you could mail a letter for $.06 and fill your gas tank for around twenty bucks. It was also the year we lost Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. The U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War and the upcoming presidential elections spawned massive political demonstrations throughout the streets of Chicago. To say it was a tumultuous year seems like an understatement.
But in Texas, San Antonio was hosting Hemisfair ’68, a world’s fair featuring cultures from around the globe. Coinciding with city’s 250th anniversary, Hemisfair ’68 drew over 6 million visitors including dignitaries and celebrities from around the world.
It was an event that took five years to plan and transformed downtown into an explosion of cultural diversity, complete with rides, celebrity performances, a monorail and exhibits with demonstrations on emerging technologies such as computers and telecommunication.
Under the banner, “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” Hemisfair ’68 was a six month-long celebration of cultural traditions from over 30 nations. Each country was represented by individual pavilions showcasing their art, history, food and culture.
President Johnson was scheduled to officiate the fair’s opening on April 6th; however, King’s assassination two days before kept him in Washington. Instead, his wife, “Lady Bird,” attended in his place. Tragedy struck again in June with the Kennedy assassination. The flags at the U.S. pavilion were lowered to half staff in tribute.
The pageantry of the fair included daily parades led by marching bands, but the most popular event was the “Los Voladores de Papantla” (The Flying Indians), whose ancient ceremonial palo volador (pole flying) both educated and wowed audiences.
Still performed today, the palo volador performance features four of five Indians fastened at the ankle to a 100-foot pole who descend to the ground while swirling in graceful, acrobatic motions around the pole. The fifth Indian dances atop the pole while playing a flute or drum. Steeped in ancient traditions, palo volador was performed by Central American Indians in need of rain for their crops.
Other highlights of the fair included daily water-ski performances on a lake built especially for the fair. Celebrity entertainment included performances by The Osmond Brothers, Jack Benny and Louis Armstrong – just to name a few. A permanent venue was installed due to the popularity of the dueling cowboys, who roamed the fair staging bank robberies and shoot-outs.
The preeminent focal point of the fair was the 622-foot Tower of Americas, which still stands today and remains a popular tourist destination. In a process that took 20 days, the top of the tower was constructed at ground level and then raised inch by inch to the top.
The tower’s crowning jewel is the top house, where today, visitors dine in a rotating restaurant and take in sweeping views of downtown from its 360 degree observation deck.
The site of Hemisfair ’68 is known today as Hemisfair Park. The park features grand waterfalls and is a popular venue for concerts and Fiesta parties.
The tower remains a legacy to the vision of city leaders who wished to showcase a city rich with diversity and opportunity.
For six months in 1968, a global spotlight shined on San Antonio. A spotlight that helped transformed San Antonio into a vibrant, thriving destination hub for tourism and business.
Quick fair facts:
- The fair was originally scheduled to last a year, but Mexico protested due to the summer Olympics scheduled in Mexico City.
- Restaurants in town were still segregated, so the city worked with restaurant owners to desegregate their restaurants.
- The Tower of Americas won its name through a state-wide naming contest.
- The mini monorail crashed in September, killing one and injuring 47
“Hemisfair Guidebook”- San Antonio Fair, Inc. Records, MS 31, UTSA Special Collections
“Los Voladores de Papantla” – San Antonio Fair, Inc. Records, MS 31, UTSA Special Collections
Tower of Americas – Mine
“Monorail” – San Antonio Fair, Inc. Records, MS 31, UTSA Special Collections