Sunday, May 20, 2012

Street Fairs -- Then and Now

Carnival rides, fried dough, handicrafts, local produce, and a lively band: all ingredients of a typical village street fair.

Some things never change  --  or do they? This weekend there was a street fair in Minnie’s hometown, where the elements cited above combined to produce a pleasant afternoon.

Street fairs of a hundred years ago in the same locale were somewhat livelier, as described in this excerpt from reminiscences of Minnie’s younger brother Frederic:

"By far the greatest excitement in the village was the annual Fort Plain street fair which was usually held the second week in September. It was appreciated by us kids who were in school at that time and were usually dismissed at noon and had all afternoon and evening during the entire week to visit the fair.

On this occasion, the two blocks of Main Street and Canal Street for the same distance up to the Post Office, that is the building which now has the clock and did at that time too have the town clock on it. The streets were closed off, and booths were erected down the center of the street, and in these booths were displayed the harvest crops from the farms of our locality. They were judged, and suitable ribbons and prizes were awarded.

Frederic, ca. 1912
The things that really nailed the attention of us young people were the free attractions. There were usually two, and sometimes three of these. To the eyes of us youngsters they were the greatest events in the world. And looking back at it, and having seen many types of attractions since, I still think that some of them were pretty doggone good.

During street fairs, the bandstand stood at the intersection of Canal and Main Streets in the center and the band played for most of the afternoon and also up until about 9:30 or ten o’clock in the evening. When one of the free attractions was to take place, they usually left the bandstand and marched up into the vicinity of the exhibition and played while it went on.

One of the more modest spectacles was a bicycle loop-the-loop, which was erected up on Main Street near the Fort Plain Hotel. This consisted of a long chute with a loop in it maybe 20 feet in diameter and the take-off platform was about three stories high. It was higher than the hotel building. Two riders left this platform on bicycles, one at a time, and they came down the first very steep incline, went entirely around upside-down through the loop, and made their exit into a tremendous pile of hay which was placed on the pavement at the end of the chute to protect them from injury at the conclusion of their ride. And of course, this drew a tremendous round of applause as it actually should. I saw this same thing on a smaller scale one time at the Shriner Circus in Buffalo not too many years ago.

There were usually two performances of these free attractions, one in the afternoon around three-thirty, and the second one of the afternoon would take place a half an hour later. And then in the evening, there was also a performance, held about nine o’clock and the second one at nine-thirty, and so on. The crowd moved from one to another, taking in on the way a view of the handicrafts and produce and the carnival rides which were always a part of the street fair.

My mother used to tell of witnessing an accident and a near tragedy on the opening day of the fair while I was still too young to attend. At the first performance in the afternoon on the very site of the bicycle loop-the-loop that I have described, there was a huge wooden platform and a scheduled trained bear act. Mother was there as the first performance was scheduled for that Monday afternoon. During the course of the act, something distracted one of the bears or scared it, and standing on its hind legs, it raked one of its huge paws down over the side of the face, shoulder, and arm of one of the women performers.

The blood streaming forth, the audience thought, was ketchup, red ink, or part of the act, and they applauded heartily. However, the performance stopped, the woman was rushed to the hospital and eventually recovered. I doubt that she ever again appeared in that exhibition. The act was canceled for that night, but on the next day, minus one lady, it went on without incident for the remainder of the week. This is the only accident that I know of ever happening in connection with one of the major attractions at the street fair.

These performances during my boyhood years must have made a terrific impact upon me because in my mind’s eye, more than sixty years later, I can see them as sharply as though they happened last week.

There are three others that always come to mind when the word “street fair” is mentioned. For one of these, the band did not have to leave its bandstand at the streets’ intersection for very nearby, atop the three-story Stuart & Bergen Hardware building and across Main Street on the other side, two uprights, well-braced, were erected, and a tight wire was strung across the street between them. A tight-wire walker made his two appearances daily during the week, and the finale of his exhibition is something I shall never forget. He came forth bearing in one hand an ordinary kitchen chair and in the other hand, two empty beer bottles.

Making his way to the center of the wire, he placed the two back legs of the kitchen chair in the neck of each one of the beer bottles. And then he maneuvered these (the bases of the bottles) into position on the wire. Carefully, slowly, he edged his way until he was sitting on the chair tilted back on its hind legs supported by the two beer bottles resting on the wire. And there he waved casually at the crowd, and the band gave forth a great salute. At the conclusion, he disassembled his apparatus and walked back to the end of the wire on one side of the street. This was performed without a net, although there was a brick pavement approximately three to four stories below the level of the wire. And I have never forgotten this exhibition.

Another performance that comes to mind took place on a large plank platform erected about eight feet above the level of the street at the intersection of River Street and Canal Street. On this platform was mounted and braced a large globe, I would guess about fifteen feet in diameter, and made of steel gridwork. A section of this globe could be removed by large latch screws, and on the platform beside the globe stood two motorcycles.

As the exhibition got underway with a fanfare from the band, two male riders garbed with helmets, and much the same clothing as that worn by today’s riders mounted the platform and proceeded to warm up their motorcycles with roaring engines. Then, the section of the globe was removed and they took their motorcycles inside, and started the engines again while attendants locked the large entry section back into place.

When all was ready, they started to ride, slowly at first, around the bottom of the globe, one following the other at a rather leisurely pace, and parallel to the platform. Gradually they accelerated and parted into separate pathways, and they were soon riding around the globe in all directions, up and over, criss-crossing with roaring motors and a cloud of blue smoke pouring out from the exhaust. The sound was thunderous, but you could see these two men – they must have been highly skillful to ride in the small enclosure at these speeds and never, so far as I know, were involved in any sort of an accident or collision.

At the conclusion of the act, they slowed their machines down once more and were going slowly around the bottom of the globe as the audience burst forth into cheers and the band gave a great closing fanfare. This was called “The Globe of Death.” And it seemed to be, from its potential dangers, aptly named. I’ve seen many exhibitions of motorcycles being ridden around a silo-like motordromes, but I’ve never anywhere seen a duplicate of the Globe of Death.

Finally, there always comes to mind an act which seems almost unbelievable. I’d always see it at night, because then it was most spectacular. At nine o’clock, the band leaves its platform and marches up the street playing the Washington Post March or some similar snappy march tune. It stops near the intersection of Mohawk Street and Canal Street, for there a short distance from it on Canal Street, right in front of the Town Clock has been erected a shiny white ladder with many guide-wires and extending well above the level of the building (I would guess to some 60 feet), and at the top of this ladder is a small white platform. Searchlights from the top of neighboring buildings illuminate the ladder and the pavement below.

And as the band plays “da da da da,” there slowly emerges from the tent of the performers four beautiful girls clad in spangled white tights glistening in the light of the searchlights, each one holding the corner of a huge Turkish towel from which water is dripping. And they proceed to a spot on the pavement near the foot of the ladder, and with appropriate flourishes, spread the towel on the bricks.

As the band plays on, the girls withdraw some distance diagonally from the corner of this wet towel that they had brought forth. And next emerges the high diver, clad like his assistants in sequined tights with spangles, and as he approaches the foot of the ladder, he bows to the crowd and raises his hand gracefully in acknowledgment of their cheers. Rung after rung he slowly mounts the ladder as the band plays on, stopping about every eight or ten feet to wave gracefully to the crowd below, which is now standing gratefully, gazing ever upward with their mouths open. Eventually, he reaches the small platform at the top of the ladder.

The band stops playing, the searchlights focus, half of them on the small figure high in the air with his shining spangles, and the other half on the dripping towel lying on the pavement. Raising his arms for silence, he steps to the edge of the platform, and the band begins a thunderous roll of the drums. Gracefully the man dives into the towel below. The water flies in all directions, he springs to his feet and with a flourish acknowledges the applause of the speechless, almost unbelieving spectators surrounding him.

Unbelievable, you say? Well, my sister who witnessed this affair several times during the same week says that everything took place exactly as I have described it, with one small difference: there was no towel. But, there was a tank, a wooden tank, watertight, about nine by twelve feet and about ten feet deep, into which this leap was made. Be that as it may, it was truly a spectacular and wonderful event to conclude my reminiscences of the Fort Plain street fair when I was very young."

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Note: These reminiscences were recorded by Minnie's younger brother in the summer of 1976, when he was 71 years old.

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