From 1894 to 1897, UT President Charles W. Dabney was on a quasi leave of absence to serve as the assistant secretary of agriculture in President Grover Cleveland’s administration. Among his responsibilities was overseeing the United States’ exhibit building at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. (He had also been chief of the Department of Government and State Exhibits at the New Orleans World Exposition of 1884–85.) Dabney persuaded the UT trustees to approve an exhibit for inclusion, contending that an exhibit at the exposition would be a wonderful advertisement for the institution.
In competition with other colleges and universities, UT won the exposition’s gold medal. Dabney declared a weeklong school holiday, and 140 of UT’s 250 students, including 13 coeds chaperoned by Sue Barton of Knoxville, traveled to Atlanta by a special train to attend the exposition. The girls stayed at the Atlanta Hotel and the cadets slept in a large convention room at the Atlanta Inn, in rows of double beds occupied by two students each. Elements of the exhibit included a photographic gallery of UT buildings and presidents of the first century, magic lantern slides of insect and plant life, agricultural bulletins and reports, seeds of native and introduced grasses, analyses of typical Tennessee soils, a student-made revolving bookcase, a model student table with microscope, a traction dynamometer (a machine for measuring the resistance of a loaded wagon up to 2,600 pounds on different kinds of roads) designed by Professor William W. Carson and built by students, and results of an 1894–95 dietary study of 41 students. The UT exhibit was displayed at Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition in Nashville in 1897 where UT won another gold medal.
During the visit to the Atlanta Exposition, the football team, which had made the trip en masse, played a game against the army team at Fort McPherson. The army eleven included several West Point players, and UT lost 28-0.