WE HAD OUR
fair share of unscheduled diversions in Wallingford. Occasionally an aged
French-Canadian came into town leading by a halter a huge brown beast, a
bear, which wore an appropriate muzzle. The man by resorting to certain
artifices of his own, would make the bear go through the steps of an
ungainly dance and sometimes man and beast would engage in a wrestling
match which had some of the appearances of reality.
The Canadian kept up a running
jargon addressed to the bear as the show proceeded. Only one of his
phrases sticks in my memory; it was, 'Turn around, sir," and each time
these words were spoken the animal did actually turn around, although I
was never quite certain that the bear understood the words, in fact we
boys could hardly understand them ourselves. We noticed however that
simultaneously with the speaking of the words, the man skillfully threw a
loop in the rope halter around the neck of the beast thereby making it
uncomfortable for him not to turn around. We thought It probable that the
bear understood the rope better than he understood the words.
Not infrequently an itinerant
peddler who dignified himself by the name of "Doctor" used to come to the
village to sell Kickapoo liniment alleged to be a sure-cure Indian remedy
for rheumatism. Anyone afflicted with rheumatism had only to buy one
bottle of Kickapoo at the very reasonable price of one dollar and his
troubles would soon be over. In order to draw crowds, the doctor extracted
teeth without pain and without charge. An express wagon lighted by a torch
constituted his salesroom and also his dental laboratory. The doctor was
the arch enemy of both rheuma tism and pain from toothache and most folks
suffered at times from one or the other or both. It made one feel sad to
see the sufferers line up to avail themselves of the free services of the
"doctor." Whatsoever he may or may not have known about the merits of
Kickapoo as a remedy for rheumatism, he did know how to pull teeth.
Whether the process was painless as was advertised, or painful, as it was
ordinarily supposed to be, was never made known to the public. There was,
however considerable suspicion afloat that the pain was there as usual but
perhaps it was not so severe a pain to thrifty New Englanders as the pain
of having to pay out fifty cents, or perhaps even a dollar, would have
been. The "doctor" had repeatedly stated that it would not hurt in the
least, a point which he kept on maintaining in stentorian tones even
during the operation. It would have come with poor taste for any of his
patients to have denounced him as a liar, and, misery loves company
anyhow-others were standing in line.
When the "doctor" had accumulated
his customary impressive display of molars, cuspids, incisors, etc., the
pay business of the evening began. The theory was that the "doctor" had
made a sufficient demonstration of the fact that he could make quick
disposition of human ailments. If he could deal with such dispatch with
offending molars, it stood to reason that rheumatism had little chance of
The sales of Kickapoo were fast
and continued until a late hour. From the "doctor's" remarks, we judged
that Kickapoo was one of the world's greatest wonders; so far as the
United States was concerned it was the greatest; Niagara Falls and the
Yellowstone had their following but for real grandeur one had to fall back
on Kickapoo. Kickapoo never slept; from morning until night it was ever at
work for humanity. The small price of one dollar per bottle was in no
sense compensatory; it was merely a necessity that the great work
When the "doctor" finally packed
up and left town, his stock of Kickapoo had been greatly depleted but he
took along with him a fine accumulation of hard-earned Vermont dollars.
Not infrequently a negro minstrel
show came to town. The end men were so funny that it took a week to stop
laughing. Walllingford was also invaded from time to time by itinerant
theatrical troupes. One played "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with its judicious
mixture of merriment and sorrow. Had it not been for Marks, the lawyer,
and his inevitable "umbrella," we might never have recovered from the
sorrow occasioned by the deaths of Little Eva and Uncle Tom. Marks
interpolated one laugh between every two sobs.
On one grand occasion, Tom Thumb,
or someone pretending to be that famous character, came with several other
dwarfs, men and women, and put on a show-and how those diminutive
creatures did dance. I almost lost my heart to one of the tiny women who
looked so pretty and danced so gracefully.
Nearly every year we were
entertained by a troupe, traveling under the name of "The Guy Family,"
father, mother and several children of various ages, the youngest being
little more than an Infant. Each member of the family had his or her
specialty suited to sex and age. It was a clean and wholesome show and
welcomed on each recurring visit.
Punch and Judy shows occasionally
dropped in unannounced. They were sure to attract crowds composed mostly
of boys who were drawn to the scene as flies are drawn by molasses. One
man and a few trappings constituted the entire show but what laughs the
antics of the irascible Punch and the much-pummeled Judy did bring forth.
What has modem comic opera to compare in humor with the resounding cracks
of the staff of Punch on the head of Judy.
Occasionally jugglers, sleight of
hand performers and fakirs in general held exhibitions on the village
square summer evenings.
The grand splurge of the year,
more dazzling even than the County Fair in Rutland, was circus day. The
fever began early in the summer when the advance agents splattered fences,
barns and every conceivable place with huge and gaudy signs depicting
hair-raising performances on the flying trapeze, bareback riding,
somersaults, single, double and even triple. Stately ladies, apparently
entirely unafraid, cracked their whips at the snarling beasts in lion
cages. There were elephants aplenty in size all the way from the ungainly
little fellows, tagging along with their mothers, up to Jumbo, the
mightiest beast on earth, whose hide hung loosely on his frame like an
ill-fitting suit of clothes or a rug flung over a clothes line.
When the big-three-ringed circus
in Rutland was in prospect, Wallingford rapscallions scrimped and saved,
ran errands, worked in hayfields or wherever else employment could be had,
in order to make certain that they would have money in plenty for railway
fare to Rutland, reserved seats in the big tent, also for the sideshow and
for ice cream, peanuts and popcorn and a little extra for whatever might
pop up at the last moment.
After the delirious day had spent
itself, it was a worn and weary lot of Wallingford folks, both old and
young, and other folks from further the valley who piled aboard the
ten-thirty train with its extra coaches for transport to their respective
stations and to their homes and life-saving beds.
Wallingford was much like a
deflated balloon the day following circus day, and in fact, several days
came and went before our little community got back to earth again. Even
then horizontal bars sprung up in back yards; flying trapezes festooned
trees; haylofts were turned into arenas for tumbling; and the facilities
for straining backs and breaking bones were increased beyond measure.
The County Fair at Rutland was and
still is a notable affair, drawing visitors even from adjoining counties.
A variety of events gave sport lovers desired thrills. There were races
between trotting horses owned by residents of the county and driven as a
rule by their owners; baseball games; athletic contests, including races
between hose cart teams of firemen of the different towns.
These races in the day of
volunteer firemen were spectacular events. The prizes which frequently
were expensive went to the team which in the shortest time ran the
prescribed distance and completed the coupling of the hose with the
hydrant in preparation for extinguishing the imaginary fire.
Competition in this event was so
keen that it was not unheard of for local sportsmen to secretly subsidize
fast runners from other towns and enter them under fictitious names. Where
was there a town of sufficient size that did not have its hose cart team?
The practice runs of such teams, in preparation for the important event,
afforded their fellow citizens pleasurable excitement and stimulated their
civic pride to the point of affording financial assistance and offering
modest bets in case citizens of other towns with competing teams might
happen to have a few dollars to lose,
The usual quota of licensed shows,
hurdy-gurdys and balloon ascensions, bands and drum corps, vied with each
other and strutting drum majors caused feminine hearts to palpitate.
In the main, however, the Rutland
County Fair was what it was purported to be, an agricultural display where
farmers could see the finest available exhibits of registered horses,
cattle, sheep and hogs and equally fine exhibits of apples, pears,
pumpkins, squash and cheese, both the delectable green cheese and the
ordinary Vermont cheese.
I never think of the Rutland
County Fair without thinking of the annual visits of Charles Harris of
Brattleboro, his wife and daughter Lib, and the old mare that hauled the
ancient buggy back and forth. The County Fair was a grand occasion to
Uncle Charles. He attended it religiously and made dazzling reports of its
events to us as we sat at the supper table.
Uncle Charles' real relationship
to us, I do not know, but it must have been remote. He always called
grandfather, Uncle Howard and he stoutly averred that he expected to
continue his habit of paying us his two weeks annual visit as long as
Uncle Howard lived. To grandmother and perhaps to grandfather also, Uncle
Charles' statement was more of a threat than a promise but there was
nothing that one could do about it.
Uncle Charles had a long beard,
and, while visiting us, he always wore a stovepipe hat and a Prince Albert
coat. Had he set out to make of himself a living picture of the
conventional Uncle Sam, he could not have done it more effectively.
Uncle Charles must have believed
in large families; anyhow, he had one, fourteen boys graced his board and
eventually his prayers were answered in the coming of a girl, Lib.
Whatever Lib may have been to others, to Uncle Charles and his fecund
helpmate she was the crowning glory; after her birth the fountains ran
dry. One can only speculate on what might have happened if Lib had not
arrived when she did; I imagine they might have kept on trying and several
more sons might have arrived; when Vermonters have a purpose in mind, they
are not easily discouraged.
After the last fork of hay had
been pitched into the hayloft in the autumn, the old mare's nose was
turned in the direction of Wallingford, sixty miles distant, and the
annual trek was begun. None was more conscious of what was up than the old
mare herself; she knew every mile of the journey and was given her head;
she never failed to draw up at our driveway gate before nightfall. When
the opening of the gate apprised grandmother that the annual bombardment
was on, she always ejaculated with manifest spirit, "For goodness sake,
here comes Charles Harris."
For Uncle Charles the annual visit
was the high spot of the year; his letdown from farm duties was a jubilee
of itself; his high spirits engulfed the house and the village as well; no
one was unconscious of the fact that Uncle Charles had conic to town.
On the precise day set for the
termination of Uncle Charles visit, the old mare was hitched up at the
break of day and goodbyes having been said, they departed as they had
come-Uncle Charles, his wife, Lib, the old mare and the aged buggy.
generally opened the driveway gate and saw them off, waving my hat to them
as long as they were in sight; the old mare heading south on Ethan Allen
highway, turning the School street corner easterly bent. There was Uncle
Charles, whip in hand, sitting bolt upright, his stovepipe hat set firmly
on the back of his head and a determined look on his face. Good-bye for
another year, Uncle Charles.