Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Midway Memories : Original Erie Diggers

The best way to start is at the beginning with a bit of history.  This is history that we hand down to our grands…should they have questions about when their Grandparents and Paternal Great Grandparents were Carnival people or Carnies.  How did they get into the business?  Where did they travel?  What was their life like? 

My husband wrote the following history.

The Original Erie Digger History:

The first digger was built from a child’s toy with the intention of vending penny candy in 1896.  It was coined the Erie Digger in the early 1900’s.  Erie Manufacturing Company of Hartford Connecticut began producing Erie Diggers taking the name from the digging of the Erie Canal.  By the middle of the 1920’s it was in full production using penny or nickel coin slots.  They could be found in every arcade at amusement parks, on boardwalks, in city parks, Drug stores, casinos and at fairs.

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Other styles of cranes and diggers were built during that time period by other manufacturers.  Some had elaborate cabinets and some were electrically operated.  Those machines are not to be confused with the Original Erie Digger.

In the 1930’s operators of the Erie Diggers began to replace the candy with silver dollars, paper currency and miscellaneous coins placed in trays to entice players to try the game.  After World War II operators used Japanese novelty items mixed in with the silver dollars and dimes.

By the end of the 1930’s most Erie Diggers were working for ten cents.  A few traveling operators owned most of the machines located across the country, in units of ten or twelve games each.   Lee Moss and Tommy Wells were well known operators.  Lee Moss of Hot Springs Arkansas purchased the Erie Manufacturing Corporation in 1946 along with his brother in law Tommy Wells.  In 1951 they were operating over 40 traveling units of twelve diggers each.  By buying out Erie they controlled the manufacturing process and the parts.  It was probably a monopoly against the Independant operators but most  of them got along making their own parts.  One family by the name of Jones contacted a machine shop in Texas to build their own digger design in 1960.  They built over 100 machines in four years.

At this point a distiction need to be made.  Lee Moss and Tommy Wells modified the diggers.  They would buy up used cabinets from other operators, modify the top of the cabinet, put in a modified mechanism, and replace the cab with a Tonka Toy Crane.  In my opinion the machines ceased to be Erie Diggers.  Most operators referred to them as Moss Machines.

In 1951 the Johnson Interstate Transportation Act made it a federal offense to transport gambling devices across state lines and all diggers were placed in the gambling device category.  Lee Moss was forced to pull all of his machines to home base.  The independent operators continued to operate by staying in their home state or by switching state license plates.  The digger operators banded together and formed a small business lobbying campaign which went on for two years.  Lee Moss placed several of his machines in the Federal Capitol Building for law makers to play and with the help of Hubert Humphrey digger classifications changed from “gambling device” to “amusement device.”

Diggers remained popular into the late 1970’s.  With the relaxation of Federal Laws other carnival games with less skill factor became more attractive to the public.  There are only a few digger operators working the carnival routes, but none of them are Erie Diggers.

Erie Digger

The Erie Digger in the photograph is as original as you can find.  The red and green cab, the claw, the crank and the cabinet are all original.  The mechanism inside has gone under some small modifications due to worn and broken parts.  The penny slot is original from the early 1900’s.

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  1. Don't you just love history? I imagine these are the forerunners of those machines in the cart area of Walmart that supposedly dispense stuffed animals if you put in your money and operate the arm and grab one. I've never actually seen anyone grab one, though, just a lot of disappointed small stuffed animal-less small children. Thanksgiving, Far Guy.

  2. Love learning the history of things like that. Nicely done!

  3. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing

  4. I never heard of the Erie digger. Where have I been? :-)

  5. Like DJan, I've never heard of them before, but their history is interesting.

  6. I went to middle school with Humphrey's niece, and as a result once sat with him in the Senate dining room (I had lemon meringue pie!!). Had I known, I could have thanked him on behalf of the Erie digger vendors!

  7. Okay--so did you ancestors run digger machines at the carnivals? Is this machine yours? What a fascinating history. I remember these being at the carnivals but can't remember exactly what they looked like. They probably weren't the originals by the late 50s/early 60s. Thanks to FarGuy for writing this! :)

  8. I see from above that this machine is yours and so it must have been from your family's carnival days. Please tell us more.

  9. Fascinating especially since my daughter absolutely loves those machines! She will be 40 tomorrow and still plays them....she makes an excuse that she is just helping her children but I know the truth! I can't wait to hear more. I need to have her read this post. Thank you!


  10. Very interesting. When my boys were young the first thing they wanted to do when we got to the State Fair was head to the midway for those wonderful cranes. And they were really good at them. Won lots of "junk" trinkets!!

  11. Interesting how such a simple idea could become so popular. i've seen them here too . Now I'm curious as to what they were.

  12. Ivy name is Ivy Silberstein aka Ivy Supersonic my Grandparents Alexander Migdall & Yetta Migdall Owned Erie Manufacturing Co Inc. Hartford Ct. Thank you for educating me on my heritage.

  13. My name is Ivy Silberstein aka Ivy Supersonic my Grandparents Alexander Migdall & Yetta Migdall Owned Erie Manufacturing Co Inc. Hartford Ct. Thank you for educating me on my heritage.


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