Circuses, carnivals and medicine shows

There are those who want me to keep writing about those long-ago days, but by golly, I’ll tell you right now that there are not too many people around who can remember some of the things I write about. For instance: there are few people whom I know that remember the wagon-yard days or the Bodenhamer Wagon Yard and where it was located. Fewer, still, are those who remember the days when the circuses, the carnivals and the medicine shows came to Brady to set up their tents and other paraphernalia on the Percy Dutton property which was across Main Street, north of where Super S now stands. In those days, there was a line of stores in a group of buildings which were in the space now occupied by the Housing Authority of the City of Brady. My recall faculty cannot bring back but two of those businesses. They were Bill Bryson’s Feed Store, where I worked when I was 14, and Dolf Anderson’s blacksmith shop, which was the last building in the group. Oh gad, what fun it was to watch as the circus workers and elephants put up the huge circus tent and to get to go inside to see the entire performance was the fulfillment of hopes that dreams are made of. As well as I remember, Papa took us all to see one circus’and it was wonderful. I did not see another until I was earning my own money. And it was after using my own money to see my second circus that I decided: if you have seen one circus you have seen them all. (I didn’t see another until my kids were small). The carnivals were great fun for those who had the money, but for those of us who were never allowed more than a dime to spend, it was the excitement of watching all of the free commotion and hubbub that took place in front of the tent shows before each performance where we got to see such performers as the fat lady, the strong man and the fighter who challenged all comers. Now I haven’t been to a carnival in many a year, but I suspect they are no different than they were in my day. All of the open stands offered kewpie dolls or some other-type prizes to tempt people with money to try their luck, with the results being as true now as it was then’the house always has the advantage. So, it was that the 10-cent kids, like myself, got their fun out of seeing others lose their money trying to win those elusive prizes. The one thing about a carnival that stands out in my memory, above all others, is the tantalizing (makes you want to eat) aroma of hamburgers and onions sizzling on the grill at the hamburger stand. Now the medicine shows were different in that kids did not need money to see and enjoy all of their programs. They usually set up an open-air platform in front of a tent that allowed the performers access to-and-from their stage. The seats for the audience were always wooden benches placed in front of the stage. As I recall, these medicine shows generally stayed for a week, and to entice their suckers to attend each performance, they had a different show each night. There was no admission charge for these shows, and all one had to do was sit and enjoy their entertainment which was offered in different acts. It was between acts that the audience was called upon to pay for their free entertainment. During these intermissions, the medicine show owner really went to work as he performed one of the biggest games of deception since the snake oil that cured all of man’s ailments was invented. I’m telling you folks that while medicine show interlocutor hawked the benefits of the medicine he was offering the balance of the show, people were walking through the audience holding high that magnificent elixir yelling, ‘Just $1 a bottle, folks. Don’t pass up the opportunity to cure your ailment for just $1.’ Now you would be surprised at how much of that stuff they sold. I could be mistaken here, but I believe that to keep the suckers coming, they offered this snake oil of theirs in a different color and as a cure for a different ailment each night. Of course we kids were not interested in the medicine; we just wanted to see the shows, and if I remember correctly, they were good shows. At least the towns folk thought they were, for there was generally standing room only each night. Those days are gone forever, and I feel sorry for folks such as my wife who never saw one of those snake oil medicine shows. However, I tell her that if she will watch some of the paid programs on TV, she will see the same-type hawkers trying to sell their wares on many of our TV channels. I also tell my wife that these paid TV programs must be making money because, just like the old medicine shows, they keep on coming back. Nice thing about the TV sucker show, though, is that you don’t have to sit on a hard wooden bench out in the open to see it. *** While talking about olden times, one of our coffee club members repeated the following story which was told by the interlocutor of one of those medicine shows that stopped in Rochelle for a week: It seems that a local resident had died and St. Peter appeared before him and pointed to a ladder reaching high into the sky. ‘If you want to go to Heaven,’ said St. Peter, ‘ you have to climb that ladder.’ He handed the fellow a box of chalk. ‘What is the chalk for’ the man asked. ‘That’s for you to make a mark on the rung of the ladder for each lie that you told in your lifetime,’ said Peter. This man had been climbing for some time when another man came to St. Peter, was given a box of chalk and told to start climbing the ladder. After this fellow was about half way to Heaven, he looked up and saw someone climbing back down. When they met, he noted that it was his friend from Rochelle who had recently died. ‘Why are you going back down’ asked the man. ‘Oh hell,’ said the other, ‘I’ve got to go back and get another box of chalk.’ Bill Bodenhamer is a weekly columnist for the Brady Standard-Herald. Email him at

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