Chapter 6

Carnivals and Circuses

Circuses and Carnivals in the 30’s

It would be hard for anyone who had not seem them to imagine the enormous shows that came here before trucks had been perfected for long hauls. All carnivals and circuses came to town then by railroad on long steel flat cars, perhaps three times as long as those you might see today. They were generally painted a bright orange. All the equipment used in a carnival was loaded on very heavy wagons which were then loaded on these flatcars.

Due to the fact that they came in by rail, the Ferris wheels and rides then were far larger than today. One ride, called the whip, easily covered a space equivalent to a city block (in Ogdensburg, that’s 400 feet square). This ride consisted of a long oval platform with a chain running around the inside to which the cars were attached. The wheels under the cars were designed so that the cars would whip violently back and forth, or spin, as chance dictated, so it was required that you hang on tightly.

The carnivals used a great many horses to haul their wagons to the Show Grounds. They were located at the old fair grounds (now the O.F.A. football field), and later at what is now the Hall tank farm. Carnivals usually came in by the Rutland Railroad whereas the circuses seemed to come in on the New York Central. The reason for this, I believe, is that in spite of the size of the enormous carnivals, the circuses had more cars. This was no doubt due to the numbers of animals that were in their menageries, as well as the gigantic big top and menagerie tents. The one thing both shows had in common was the number of horses needed to pull the heavy wagons to the show lot. Naturally the horses were unloaded first. So as the New York Central had a more track, or sidings, the enormouse circuses unloaded there. The unloading of the carnivals, despite their size, had little interest for most people, since at most they presented a stream of horses hauling wagons to the lot. The last large carnival here, if I rember correctly, was the “World of Mirth”, possibly around 1932 or so.

Popular Circuses and Carnivals

The better-known circuses then were the “Sels Floto”, the “101 Ranch”, and the “Buck Jones” or “Tom Mix” shows. The absolute king of all shows, then and now, was as it was advertised then, the “Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, Combined Shows.” The “101 Ranch” was a western show with Indians, buffalo, stagecoaches, cavalry, etc. The rest were also large, but the one I would like to describe is the Ringling Brothers since it was an unforgettable experience to anyone who ever saw it.

Advance Work

Everyone knew, of course, when the circus was due in town. Very large advertisements were spread all over town, on every available fence or billboard. The advertisements themselves were very large, covering the entire side of a bard or building. They would show a ferocious lion, maddened elephants charging or beautiful performers on the high wire. Totally unlike the small cardboard posters of today.


Around midnight the crowds would start to gather at the New York Central yards, and necks would start craning toward the DeKalb branch or the Watertown branch, since the trains might come from either direction. The Ringling Brothers circus was so large that it would arrive in four or five sections. Suddenly someone would shout “Here comes one section” and e everyone would be rushing in all directions to see it. Finally a large steam locomotive, with flags on the front denoting it a special, would pull into the yards, very slowly since there were so many excited people, and back its section onto one of the sidings.

Unloading the Circus

The animal section came in first, and several horses were unloaded. When the first section of flat cars came in, a ramp was placed on the end of the last car, and the first wagon was unloaded. This wagon contained hundreds of round kerosene torches which were lighted and place all along the route to the show grounds. Picture, if you can, a long line of smoking torches, extending all the way from the New York Central yards to the lot on the Hall company grounds on Riverside Avenue. After the torches were placed, the elephants were unloaded from the large animal cars with massive wooden ramps. We always expected one of them to fall on the steep incline, but they were not as clumsy as they seemed to be. From twenty to thirty elephants were unloaded, as well as camels and giraffes. Their trainers would lead them along the streets, following the flickering torches the elephants with their trunks curled around the tails of the ones in front of them, and all of these enormous beasts padding along the streets,ith only a few men to control them.

The rest of the horses were then unloaded. It seems there were hundreds of them, all with their manes braided and their sides brushed so that they shone. Fish plates were placed between each flat car, and as many horses as were needed were hitched onto each wagon from he side, while several men would grab the tongue and steer it down the row of flat cars until they came to the ram at the end. The end car had a bollard around which a man would throw a couple of half hitches and ease it down the ramp. There was a row of stores directly across the street, and we always expected these enormous wagons to smash into the store fronts. But the men always managed to steer them away and along the street where a team of horses was waiting to haul them away to the lot.

 The precision of the workmen was beautiful to watch. There was no lost motion. A two, six or even an eight horse hitch was always waiting for each wagon. As each wagon was hauled away, other teams were returning from the lot to be hitched up to another wagon. And so it went all night long, until all the equipment had been hauled to the lot. At that time, of course, we went home and to bed.

Setting up the Circus

The next morning we were up bright and early to go down to the circus lot, since each circus hired a lot of kids, who were paid off with free passes to the circus. Our work consisted of pulling the large rolls of canvas flat, ready to be raised or else carrying water to the elephants or horses, or perhaps carrying stakes to the erection crews.

 One of the most interesting sights was the black men driving tent stakes. They were real professionals. About six or eight men would stand with their sledge hammers around a tent stake and one of the blacks would start an unrecognizable chantey, at which point the first man would hit the stake and barely get his sledge out of the way when the next man would deliver a blow, and so on around the circle. This was fascinating to watch. Their timing was so perfect that the stakes were rapidly driven in, then they went on to the next stake.

 Another sight I liked, was watching the elephants. As soon as a wagon was emptied of equipment, a half shaven man who looked like a bum would come up with an elephant and push the wagon to the edge of the lot. It is hard to imagine the strength of these animals until you see one push his head against an enormous wagon which was probably hauled to the lot by an eight-horse hitch, and push it effortlessly all over the lot.

The Circus Parade

The next item of the day was the circus parade. This generally started right after lunch. Imagine, if you can, dozens of beautiful wagons drawn by teams with their manes bobbed, their tails braided, a beautiful harness on each one, drawing those incredibly beautiful wagons, most of which were hand carved throughout, then painted and gilded. It would be hard to imagine these days the cost and the dedication of those craftsmen who carved those wagons. Some of them were gigantic. One wagon carried the circus band composed of twenty or thirty pieces or players.

The one that fascinated most boys, however, was the steam calliope. This was a wagon with a steam boiler in the back with a man shoveling coal into an upright boiler, which in the middle was a sweating man playing the calliope, generally in an undershirt. Each time he would press a key, the steam would roil around him and the calliope would shriek with a voice that could be heard for a mile. Meanwhile the black smoke from the boiler would blow into our faces. No other piano ever made sounded like a calliope.

Show Time

After the parade, it was show time. Everyone would try to get there early so they could take in the enormous menagerie tent which contained such animals that would be the envy of a zoo in any large city. There was also the side show, which had its share of freaks and oddities. But this cost extra whereas the menagerie and the main show was included in the price of your ticket.

 The Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, the circus I am describing, was a five-ring circus with an enormous big top. It was impossible to see the whole show. There was a different act going on in each ring and you watched what was in front of you. The best acts were in front of the reserved seats, on both sides and opposite the band stand, and in the center ring. While a show was going on in each ring, the clowns were pulling zany acts in front of the audience.

You may have noticed my use of superlatives, but superlatives could hardly describe this circus - the seal acts, the aerialists, the horses, clowns, beautiful girls, dog and elephant acts, tight wire acts, men shot from cannons, trampolines, lion tamers, ice cream, hot dogs, popcorn, Roman Legionaries, the equestrians with their glittering costumes, the laughter and the suspense.

 Packing Up

When the show was over, the black roustabouts would pull down the tent. The elephants, which had large leather belts over their backs and chains over the belts, would effortlessly pull up the stakes. The wagons were then loaded and we went happily home to bed. I am reminded of the words of a song, “gone are the Days”, and if I shed a tear, it is not for my own memories, but for the boys of today. I see the tiny circuses and carnivals of today, and I am reminded of all those things, so dear to a boys’ heart, that are gone forever.

 Working With the Circus

This summer was the very last time that the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus came here. Our whole family got up as usual, to watch the unloading. Afterwards Dick and I went down to the lot to ask for work. A few hours would entitle any boy to the afternoon show and, wonder of wonders, this year we were hired. A boy had to be big enough to work, so we were quite proud of being taken on. My brother and I worked like beavers, unrolling canvas, watering animals, carrying tent pegs, or anything else required of us, along with a couple of hundred other boys. It would be hard to imagine the thrill, being for a while a part of this great show.

By the time we were done, somewhere around noon, we were told to line up in several tight lines to receive our passes. As bad luck would have it, I had very large kids in front and in back of me. I was unable to breathe. I eased sideways a trifle, which was a bad mistake as I was immediately pushed out of line. No amount of shoving at the large boys could get me back in again. I still kept my place, but when I got to the front, the man with the passes claimed I had tried to sneak into line. Even though I tearfully explained what had happened, he refused to grant me a pass.

It would be hard to imagine now the calamity this could be to a twelve-year-old boy of this time. This day, which promised delights those seekers after heaven could not even comprehend, became the blackest day of my life. I was beyond grief. I was shattered. I walked numbly home. Though the sun shone, I did not see it. Though others laughed and enjoyed life, I did not hear them. Such was my colossal misery and shame that I could not even seek comfort from anyone. This was my first experience with injustice.

 While I walked around in a daze for hours, my grief slowly gave way to anger. I resolved to revenge myself and walked down the length of the circus cars already loaded. The evening show was on and the menagerie was already off the lot. A Negro laying under one of the wagons noticed me and called me over. I was soon pouring out my tale of woe to him. I guess he understood, because he promised me that he would write to me in a week or so, and he would take care of me, and I could travel with the circus forever. I believed him then and I was quite happy. By the time I realized he was giving me a line, I had somewhat gotten over it.