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Pan-Am author Margaret Creighton returns to her roots

Author Margaret Creighton spent her childhood years in Western New York, growing up in Hamburg and moving to Buffalo at age 16.

Creighton went on to graduate from Indiana University with a bachelor's degree in English, get a master's in journalism at Boston University and and continue on to earn a Ph.D in American Studies. She has been  back in Buffalo over the years to visit family, but when Creighton, a professor of history at Bates College in Maine, returns this coming week, it will be to promote a ground-breaking book on Buffalo's 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

Creighton will be speaking and doing book signings at six events: 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Filling Station, 745 Seneca St., Larkinville for a conversation to be filmed by C-Span; noon Tuesday at the Central Library, 1 Lafayette Sq.; 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble,  1565 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst; 5 p.m. Wednesday at Talking Leaves, 951 Elmwood Ave.; noon Saturday at the Buffalo History Museum; and 4 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 3701 McKinley Pkwy., Hamburg.

In "The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World's Fair" (W.W. Norton & Co., 274 pages, $28.95), Creighton tells the story of a city whose high hopes were shattered by the assassination of President William McKinley. She uses social class, race, gender and animal welfare to explore issues at the fair that would become thornier later in the 20th century, and which are still being grappled with today.

Creighton's book, "The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History" was a finalist in 2006 for the Lincoln Prize, given for the best historical book on the Civil War.

Lauren Belfer, author of "City of Light," has spoken of how she never learned Buffalo's history growing up, and was later surprised to learn how successful the city was at the time of the Pan-American Exposition. What did you learn growing up in Buffalo about the World's Fair?

I didn't know much about the Pan-Am at all, despite having lived less than a quarter mile from there. I don't remember studying local history at all. The local history movement in the history profession didn't really take off until the '80s, when people started looking at things from the bottom up, through the lens of ordinary people. This isn't something we thought of as a proper subject for study.

Were you surprised to learn you were the first to write a full-length, non-fiction book on the Pan-American Exposition?

A number  of people, including Buffalonians, had written about aspects of the fair, notably Mark Goldman, Michael Frisch and Lillian Williams. And then of course, Lauren Belfer. I have pondered why this topic -- this amazing event -- wasn't taken up, especially after the centennial in 2001.

Was it because it seemed a story about disappointment or tragedy, rather than one that seemed to have a happy ending? Was it because of the revenue shortfall, or the assassination that caused some embarrassment to Buffalo? Or maybe it was because the Pan-Am celebrated the success of white civilization, or you might even say white nationalism, and that's certainly something we don't want to celebrate, or see as an appropriate topic of investigation? All of those things may have played a part.

What drew you to the Pan-American Exposition?

It's a great story, and I enjoyed seeing Buffalo as a compelling and sympathetic character. This is a story about the beginning of Buffalo as an underdog, and about how resilient the city really is.

What were some of the things you found positive about the fair?

I tried to identify aspects of the event that Buffalo should have been proud of, whether it was the electricity, the architecture or the arts. Also, I really think i's focus on Latin America, at a time when many of the world's fairs put the exhibits of Latin American countries  on the periphery, was exceptional. Here was Buffalo really acknowledging Latin American republics, and giving them a platform from which to give addresses to American audiences, and in some cases to object to American foreign policy. I really think that was something quite remarkable.

A lot of disturbing things  happened at the Pan-Am. What shocked you the most?

I couldn't get over the thrill people felt at the prospect of electrocuting an elephant and seeing it die. At the time, there were plenty of Americans who were very sympathetic to elephants. Jumbo had been a huge sensation across the country. To have people sit down by the thousands and look forward to seeing this amazing mammal brought to its knees was shocking and disturbing.

Having taught 19th and 20th century American history, I wasn't surprised by the disdain directed at people of color, Native Americans and women. But I knew less about how animals and the natural world figured into this. The dog slaughter was one of the most surprising things. This really hadn't been talked about, and it was a real challenge to me to know how to talk about it.

Some think McKinley's assassination cast a terrible spell over Buffalo. What are your thoughts?

I admittedly am not a great believer in spells and curses, but many people have spoken about this and I respect their concern. I go back to the event: Was there anything Buffalo might have done differently? The only thing I can come up with is that Buffalo was possibly innocently overconfident. It was going to outdo the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which was a big ambition. It was confident that Buffalo'surgeons had performed a miracle, essentially. So when these things didn't happen, the city faced some embarrassment.

But frankly, Buffalo suffered enough in the 20th century to atone for any misdeeds at the time.

The next World's Fair is in Kazahkstan in 2017. Do you think world's fairs still play a useful role in the 21st century?

The Olympics serve some of the functions of world's fairs by providing a big stage for international cooperation, and a big business boost to the site. Amusement parks like Disney World probably provide some of the functions of the midways found at the world's fairs. But I really think now would be a great time for a new sort of American world's fair, something that celebrates differences and tolerance, unlike the early fairs that were all about chest thumping and supremacy, and in this case, white achievement.

How does it feel as a native Buffalonian to know you have written a book that contributes so much to Buffalo's history?

It feels good. I like Buffalo a lot. I am really happy to see Buffalo on the rebound, and to see the revitalization, to see the expanding pride of the city. Like many Buffalonians, I grew up somewhat on the defensive. I now see so much optimism.

I think with this book I can offer a history that brings some pride to the city in some way. It's not a story just about tragedy; it's a story about struggle, but some of those struggles were for very good causes.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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