A thrill of excitement always went thru all of us small fry every summer when a crew of men with buckets of paste and long handled brushes and rolls of colored paper under their arms arrived in town and pasted big pictures of circus tents, elephants, tigers, lions and clowns on all of the billboards, sides of barns and fences. It took several trains to transport a big circus like Barnum & Bailey's and all of the little people and half the adults in town were at the railroad tracks before daylight to make sure they would miss none of the unlading. The first train to pull onto the sidetracks near the depot was that carrying the tents and tent poles and right behind it came cars of horses, two or three thousand before circuses became motorized, as the horses had the job of getting the whole show to the show grounds at Straw's Field or Barnes' Bottom, except for the menagerie animals like elephants, camels and zebras who got there on their own legs. I was always town between staying to watch more wagons come off the flat cars, where a work elephant pushed them to one side, and following the exotic parade of animals to the show grounds.
By seven or eight o'clock all of the trains except the gaudily painted passenger cars of the performers, still asleep in their berths, were unloaded and we hurried to the show grounds where the big top was already spread out on the ground around upright tent poles and crew of unshaven and sleepy looking men who looked as tho they slept in their clothes - which most of them probably did - were moving around the edge of the canvas driving stakes with sledge hammers. It was a marvel to watch as many as seven or eight men form a circle around a stake and coordinate their blows to drive it into the ground. Watching the stake, it seemed to sort of slide into the ground on its own in a couple of seconds. Besides the big top there was the sideshow tent, the menagerie tent connected to the big top - the audience viewed the animals in their cages before going in to take their seats for the main show - the performers' tent, the cook tent and dining tent, the horse tent, besides numerous other small tents for selling souvenirs, hot dogs, cotton candy, soda pop and a hundred other things which would separate the farmers from their money. It was at a circus that I first saw an ice-cream cone.
The performance was marvelous enough but it was only part of a long day of excitement. When the audience for the evening performance streamed out into the night air at about ten o'clock everything was gone but the big tent they had been in and the wagons and horses necessary to get it back to the train. The next day the circus grounds were just a field again with only a few bits of debris scattered about to show that it had been there. We always went over the terrain searching hopefully for anything that might have been lost or forgotten but I, at least, never found anything of value.
Big shows, like Ringling Brothers or Barnum and Bailey, only made their appearance once every year or two but there was almost always a carnival or a medicine show in town. The medicine shows usually set up a tent on a vacant lot close tot the Square where they gave several shows every day during the summer, free, since the object was to sell some sort of medicine guaranteed to cure everything from a toothache to corns, but particularly disorders of the digestive system. The show was most often a vaudeville act or two after which the barker went into his spiel to sell the medicine, and sell it they did. To my unsophisticated mind some of the acts were quite good. One that sticks in my mind was a comedian who gave a sermon in imitation of a Negro preacher. Such a performance today would undoubtedly raise a protest but nobody thought of racism then tho there was plenty of it.
Carnival would come to town for a week, setting up merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, souvenir booths and games of chance. There was generally one free act to attract the crown such as a tightrope walker or a high diver, a man who climbed to the top of a 100 ft ladder and dived off of a platform into a tank of water on the street. I couldn't bear to watch; I was afraid he would miss the tank. The merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel were operated by upright steam engines and I nearly got killed watching the merry-go-round being set up. The engine was mounted on big iron wheels so it could be moved from place to place and I was leaning on one of the wheels watching when the sky got very dark; a big thunderstorm was coming up. Suddenly a lightning bolt struck very close and I felt a strong shock which went thru my arm and down my leg. The clap of thunder was simultaneous. I was always leaning on something but after that I was careful about leaning on anything made of metal.
Last modified on 17 May 2009 @ 14:53