I have heard it said that the sense of smell is perhaps the strongest of our five senses at bringing back old memories. That must have some truth to it because often memories from my youth are sparked by a smell that reminds me of those past experiences.
The aroma of fresh popcorn brings back memories of Friday night at the downtown theater as we waited for the movie of the week to begin. The smell of hot peanuts brings back memories of the 5 & 10 cent store that was once the center of downtown shopping. And then there was that clean smell of chlorine from Bruce Pool, filled with dozen of kids splashing and enjoying themselves, in those summer months so long ago.
Perhaps for me one of the strongest memories is when I remember the smells of popcorn, candy apples, cotton candy, and sawdust all mixed together. It’s summer time and the carnival has come into town. For weeks ahead of time colorful show bills were put up in windows of almost every downtown merchant. A picture of a clown and Ferris wheel would often be the center of the advertisement. Near the bottom in big bold letters would be the date, hand written for all to see.
The traveling carnival is a tradition lost over the years since I was a kid. Sometimes I wish that I could once again take my family to see the wonders of the small time carnival with it side shows. It always amazed me that back then you passed the old B&O bottom on Sunday evening it would be empty and quiet. Then in less than 24 hours later the carnival had come to town and was open for business.
Sounds of calliope music and screams from riders on the tilt-a-wheel then filled the once quiet air of the bottom. The dark sky aglow from thousands of colorful lights on the amusement rides and side show tents. The ground covered in a fresh layer of saw dust gave the temporary center of entertainment a fresh smell of summer. Life was good when the carnival came to town.
Today, looking at the area where the carnival set up, it somehow seems smaller than it did in the 1960s. It had to be a bit of magic in those days that gave the inside of the carnival a feeling of being larger than it was.
The carnival was laid out in an oblong circle between the road and the railroad tracks. Trucks and the tents of the side shows made up the outside perimeter of the carnival. They were placed tightly end to end to form a barrier so you could not sneak or see in. I am sure some industrious kids found a way under a truck and looked for an opening to dart into the midway. In the center of the carnival were games of chance. Ring toss, plastic yellow ducks floating in an endless circle of water, and glassware won by a lucky toss of a coin were part of the midway games. The floating ducks was probably your best bet to win a 10-cent prize for only a quarter.
I remember in the center of the midway there was a plywood pit surrounded by a walkway. The outside of the wooden pit was decorated with terrifying snakes and wild creatures of all kinds. In the center, a painted picture showing a wild woman biting the head off one of the terrifying snakes. The pit area was built high enough so you could not see in from the ground. Only after you paid your money could you stand on the platform surrounding the pit and see down in side. Ealka the Snake Woman, I believe the sign read near the ticket stand. Yes, I bought a ticket and looked in at the lady made up to look like a wild woman from the jungles of Borneo. All I can say, glad I ate my popcorn and candy apple before watching the show.
The real strange thing about the wild woman from Borneo was that a little later that evening I saw her wearing a Yankees baseball hat and she was selling popcorn at the concession stand near the entrance. I never realized that Borneo was in New York.
The side show’s attractions were what set those old carnivals apart from carnival of today. In one area human oddities were on display in what were called freak shows in those days. In today’s world you could not say such a thing and be politically correct.
I will have to say some of the performers were unusual. There was often a bearded lady, along with the man who could produce light from a bulb by simply holding it in his mouth. The man who could lay his bare skin on a bed of nails and remain uninjured. A person proclaiming to be half man or women depending on your point of view was partially hidden behind a canvas tarp. This sight cost you an extra 50 cents once inside the tent if you were inclined to look. I paid attention in biology class and knew what each looked like so I never figured it was worth the extra money. I guess one of the most popular side attractions was that of the hoochie-coochie show. Ladies dressed in colorful chiffon dresses and veils would perform the Sultans dance on stage. For a dollar you could go inside and see the dance of a hundred veils as they fell away. Unfortunately you had to be 21 to buy a ticket to get inside the show. I guess my buddies and me looked a lot older than our age under those bright carnival lights. In those days it was risque and considered a sin to see such things. I guess that is why usually by mid-week the show was shut down by the authorities at the urging of members in the community. Looking back at the show I realize that I can turn on my TV and see far worse things today in prime time.
The carnival was part of summer in New Martinsville in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time we enjoyed a simpler way of life in the community. The carnival, the picture show, and the waters of Bruce Pool were places that were a part of the town that progress has replaced.
As quietly and unseen as the carnival appeared, it once again vanished without much left behind. The dirty sawdust had been trampled into the soft ground. The wooden poles with temporary power stood disconnected. And the last of the spilled popcorn was carried away by the small animals of the bottom. The side show carnival has passed into history for the last time, much like the smell of theater popcorn, 5&10 cent Spanish peanuts, and the smell of chlorine from Bruce Pool. All this and more has now faded from being part of our town as I look Thru the Lens.