Sometime in 1936, Cleveland lost the largest book in the world.
The Golden Book of Cleveland, official registration book of the Great Lakes Exposition, stood inside the main entrance on St. Clair Avenue during the expo’s first season. It was 7 feet by 5 feet and 3 feet thick, with 6,000 pages — about the size of a queen-size bed. It weighed 2 1/2 tons.
The Golden Book had spaces for 4 million signatures. By Aug. 17, 1936, halfway through the expo’s season, 587,400 people had signed it. So when the expo closed in mid-October, it likely contained more than a million signatures.
But our quest to find it came up empty. We checked three libraries’ archives and a dozen books of newspaper clippings from the expo and talked to more than a dozen historians in town, and not only did we not find the Golden Book, we couldn’t even locate any photos of it.
But we know what it looked like. Golden Book Inc., the company with the contract for the registration concession, sold 5-by-3½-inch replica booklets. The shiny, golden cover is a detailed relief of the Terminal Tower, representing 1936, and a Native American gazing on a town, evoking 1836, the year Cleveland became a city. The booklets claim the Golden Book to be “the largest book in the world.”
They promised the Golden Book would be “a permanent, historical document,” “a record for future generations.” The idea was that fairgoers or their descendants could visit Cleveland again years later, look on the page number recorded in their booklet and find their signature.
The book “will be placed in the Historical Museum,” the booklets say. News articles said it’d go to “a local historical society” — probably the Western Reserve Historical Society’s museum.
The Golden Book isn’t there. “No records we have indicate we ever received it, accessioned it or catalogued it,” says the WRHS’ chief operating officer, Kermit Pike. The Ohio Historical Society in Columbus doesn’t have it either.
Pike doubts the WRHS would have wanted a 5,000-pound book. “The people running the historical society at the time would probably have been appalled,” Pike suspects. “They would’ve questioned the difficulties of preserving it, if it was truly that large. What do you do with it? How do you move it?”
If the Golden Book still exists, it really would be one of the world’s largest books. Guinness World Records says the record-holder is the Super Book, created in Denver in 1976. It’s taller and wider than the Golden Book, 9 feet by 10 feet. But the Golden Book would be thicker and heavier: The Super Book has only 300 pages and weighs only 557 pounds.
The Golden Book would be bigger than the unofficial “world’s largest record book,” Wahpeton, N.D.’s No. 2 claim to hugeness, the 507-pound, 4-foot-10-by-2-foot-9, 304,000-signature visitor’s register for the town’s Chahinka Park. (Wahpeton is also home to the world’s largest catfish, 40 feet long and made of fiberglass.)
The Golden Book disappears from expo coverage in Cleveland newspapers after August 1936. Golden Book Inc. is listed in the expo program for 1936, but not 1937’s. The company had an office in the Standard Building, near the expo’s main gates, listed in the 1936 city directory. But by late 1937, the office was vacant.
Two of the company’s officers, Alexander Von Seitz and Dominic Amato, disappeared from the city directory by 1938. Thoms Cantella, the company’s vice president, died in 1956; his son John, the treasurer, died in 1991. Their relatives don’t remember hearing about the book.
If the historical society didn’t take the Golden Book, perhaps the city of Cleveland would have been offered it next. But Great Lakes Expo buffs at City Hall say they’ve never found a trace of it.
The book’s fate was the first reference question Karen Martines fielded after joining City Hall’s public administration library in 1977.
“Back then, people still remembered: ‘Oh, the Golden Book!’ ” says Martines, who uses “Toto Leverne” as a pen name when she writes letters to a fellow expo fan.
But Martines says City Hall old-timers, whose memories dated back to the ’30s, didn’t know where the book went. Since then, she’s even asked City Hall custodians if they’ve seen a giant book. “They say, ‘Karen, do you think we’d miss this?’ ” People familiar with the deep recesses of Public Hall, the Terminal Tower and the Standard Building say there are no books or crates the size of a bed there either.
Scott Frantz, a city planning staffer who collects Expo memorabilia, thinks the Golden Book no longer exists. “I’m guessing at the end,” he says, “it got burned, tossed into the lake — who knows.” When expo buildings were being demolished, he reasons, a gigantic book might have seemed equally dispensable.
“If a 2-ton book was around, somebody would know. It wouldn’t have taken 70 years to find it.”
It’s more romantic to believe that the Golden Book still exists, that it’s just hidden and forgotten, like the Ark of the Covenant in the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” another treasure-hunt tale set in 1936. Imagine its golden gleam just before its crate is nailed shut, imagine the silence of the decades settling onto it as it’s wheeled through a never-ending warehouse and stored eternally among a maze of crates. Top men are working on it right now.
If you have a photograph of the Golden Book, or you attended the expo and remember seeing or signing it, or you have any clue about its whereabouts and fate after the summer of 1936, please call (216) 377-3656 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.