Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Midway Memories: Carnie Kids

Far Guy’s family worked together as a group.  I am certain it wasn’t easy having teenagers out on a carnival.  Remember that this was a family show and there were other kids that they grew up with.
Bobby, Sofronia and their family that I wrote about last week were just the tip of the iceberg.
The show owner had two kids of his own: Dale and Margaret they came out during the summer and during their college years.  By the time I met them they were each married, but still coming out on weekends or on vacation to work.

There was Slugger and his sisters Edna and Carrie. I used to email back and forth with Edna.  Their parents Florence and Red Cundiff had a cookhouse or a “grab joint” and made full meals…including cabbage soup.  Slugger whose real name is Howard worked the kid rides.  Edna sold tickets because she had polio.  Carrie worked in the grab joint.
Preston MN two
This old photo was taken in Preston Minnesota.  We think that is Slugger in the left bottom corner, he would be standing right across from his parents Grab Joint.

The Porterfields had nine kids…Far Guy only remembers Vickie because he and she were partners in crime.  The mom was named Vi.  The Porterfields had a glass pitch and bingo.

Chief Littlewolf had a bunch of kids, his wife had a baby every year.  He had an Athletic Show, he would wrestle people, and also had an Ape that he wrestled.  His kids would buddy up to townsfolk to get free stuff…apples and garden produce.  On the first night The Chief would get out in front of his tent and try to get the toughest guy in town to wrestle with him, the prize of $100 would go to the winner.  Of course all the townspeople had to pay to get inside to watch their town hero wrestle The Chief.  Unless The Chief was in a bad mood he usually let “the mark” win.   While the crowd was still there The Chief would talk “the mark” into a rematch on the last night.   For three or four days this was the talk of the town and on the last night there was a full house for the wrestling match.  Chief rarely lost.  “The mark”= a towns person who has money.

Know how that phrase “the mark” started?  Well you can bet I will tell you.  Someone is playing a game and you notice if they have more money in their billfold, you wish them good luck and thank them for playing…and you just might have chalk on one of your hands when you touch the persons shoulder…they are marked and every other agent in a joint on that midway knows that he still has money in his billfold.

Sam and Molly Evans.  They were Gypsies.  They had a granddaughter named Flossie. Flossie was Far Guy’s age and she was a cute little thing. I asked him if he was sweet on her and he said “Sure but my Dad didn’t want me to have anything to do with Gypsies.”   Sam and Molly had a relative/ grandson or nephew with them one year and there may have been a quick marriage between the classes…that was quickly annulled. (Remember Show Owners, Joint Owners, Agents, Ride Boys and then Gypsies was the class distinction.)  Sam had a knack for finding “stuff” for sale.  He would take off in his car and come back with the trunk stuffed with his wares…shoes, clothing, dishes and one time even a set of tires for the Desoto.   If you needed something…go ask Sam.  Sam had a Six Cat, Far Guy used to be a cat boy and set up cats for him.  A Six Cat is a controlled win joint, the large stuffed cat usually six in the tent sit six feet from the counter, the object was to knock the cat completely off the cat rack with a baseball, just falling down did not count.  Six Cats are rarely seen anymore and most Carnivals have worked hard to improve their image.  Molly had a “Mitt Camp” …she would tell your fortune or bless your money.  One time Great Aunt Emma wandered by Molly’s Mitt Camp.  Emma was not pleased when she was a few dollars lighter…so Far Guy’s Dad had to play “Patch.”  A patch is someone who handles a problem, a go between two people.  Far Guy’s Dad was a patch on several occasions but Russell Frey was the usual patch.

The Butlers were from Austin Minnesota, they owned a grocery store there, one night Bud Butler visited the carnival and was smitten with the carnival life.  He went to the Show Owner and asked “How does one get started in this business?”  Al told him “You have a game or a bunch of pig iron (rides) and the people pay you to have fun.”  Bud started out with Pea Pool. You have 15 round balls (peas) with numbers in a shaker, people would pay a quarter to get a pea from the shaker, he would put his thumb over the end of the shaker and shake them up and dispense a pea to you.  It is an old pool hall game that is too complicated for me to explain.  There was a small pool table and whoever won would win the pot and if there was no winner of course the house won.  Bud’s son Butch deserted the grocery store business ( left his sister to run the grocery store), it seems he was bitten by the show bug too.  He had a Pan Game.  Muffin tins on a table, each hole was a different color, you bet a color to win and a ball is thrown and the pay off is for the winning color.

The South Sioux City Incident:  There was trouble at the Pan Game.  Butch thought a player had moved his bet.  A argument started and the player punched Butch in the face.  The player invited Butch to go behind the tents and finish the fight…Butch said OK…a mistake because the guy had a whole bunch of friends waiting for him.  Butch was getting the hell beat out of him, Far Guy was nine years old and he sees Butch getting clobbered so he jumps in the fight, someone literally grabbed him by the seat of his pans and threw him into the air. A bunch of carnies showed up… the fight broke up, everyone ran.  Eventually the Butlers bought some kid rides and a Tilt and headed for Alaska.  They made good money there and moved to California and Butler Amusements became the biggest Carnival on the west coast.  Butch always remembered his time out on Merriam’s Midway Shows and had several conversations about the old days with Far Guy.
Johnnie Mummart…well he was just one of the girls.  His Dad was some highfalutin lawyer who didn’t want his kid around in the summer.  So Johnnie was sent out to be with his Grandparents.  They had a fish pond. Johnnie sold tickets in the ticket box all summer and drew up fashions in a notebook he was a pretty good artist.  When I met his Grandparents The McMillens I felt sorry for them.  They were old people probably in their 60’s.  Doesn’t seem old anymore but back then 60 was old.   Both had a hard time walking any distance.  They had an old blue house trailer that was about 30 feet long and it was used as a line up joint.  Somehow they had it rigged that water flowed in a trough around the front of their trailer and they would float fish around and around. Little kids love a fish pond and it was a prize every time.  A number on the bottom of the fish corresponded with a prize.  They took turns sitting outside, they didn’t have an awning to sit under for shade and some days it was unbelievably hot….probably why they took turns.  I recall the Mrs. bringing out a sandwich to the Mr.  For the life of me I cannot remember their first names of course they were Mr. and Mrs. McMillen and that is what I called them.
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  1. What a fascinating glimpse into an entirely different world. I really enjoyed it!

  2. These posts about carnival life are fascinating.

  3. Wonderful post and old photo , My cousin married a carnie and they traveled the world as carnies , this world still exists in some countries . Thanks for sharing , Have a good week !

  4. Wow! This is more information about carnival life that I ever suspected. I wonder what has happened to so many of these people you write about. :-)

    1. I do too. I spent entire summers with these other kids. Many of them were older than me but we all stuck together. I have done some searches and connected with very few. Years ago Margaret Merriam and I tried to locate Flossie but the gypsy society while fascinating is really secretive and we came up empty handed. One group to look forward to hearing about is the Grovers. Connie will write about them next week I was able to find them.

  5. So amazing and interesting since I'm sure all of us loved the carnivals when they came to town. I can remember thinking what fun it must have been to be a carnival kid and travel around. The gypsies that I remember didn't come with a carnival but in their horse drawn caravans and a whole tribe of them. I was fascinated by them and warned time and time again to stay away from them as they stole children. Talk about racial profiling! I loved them anyway and also thought it would be neat to travel around in horse drawn wagons. Thank you for sharing all these pictures and history. Those were the days!

  6. Yes, you have given us a lot of insight into a whole different world. Fascinating! Thanks.

  7. Love these stories. Learning the jargon and the history is just plain fascinating. :)

  8. what awesome stories! We had 'gypsies' living behind us. But I suspect, as they owned a home, they weren't gypsies. They were 'just' Armenians with a boisterous family. :)

  9. I enjoy every one of your stories.

  10. Thanks for sharing these amazing stories!

  11. Pauline told me to get over here and read your carnival stories and now I see why. This is fascinating. With a few words you sketch this picture of a way of life that's amazing and exotic. She thinks it would make a fascinating novel and I think she's right!

    (Sorry I haven't been around more. Trying to finish up a novel in time for some possible editor/agent requests out of a contest I finaled in.)


Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your comments! If you have a question I will try to answer it here. I no longer accept anonymous comments. All comments will be approved before posting...due to spammers...may the fleas of a thousand camels infest every hair on his body. Connie