Just An Empty Field
By Bob Blickensderfer
In 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression my parents and I moved to our newly built home at 630 Mill Street. It sets on the east side of the street, just across the street from the present-day Foursquare Gospel Church which was built on what was then just an empty triangularly shaped field bordered by Mill Street on the east, Peach Street running from Mill northeast to Carl Street, which formed the north side of the triangle.
The field sat empty except for the fall when fishnets were laid out along the northern area after the close of the annual fishing season. By early spring, the field was lying empty ready for exploitation by us boys in the area. Trenches were dug and covered with cardboard or discarded tin roofing to create world war style military bunkers.
The First World War had just ended twelve years earlier and there was many battles fought with dirt clods as missiles and toy rifles to ward off raids by the Huns against the heroic Yanks who invariably prevailed. When the war was over for the season, kites were in the air in the late spring and the flying of homemade model airplanes also saw action.
A ball field had been laid out – no dugouts or stands – just an open area where the local boys would get together to play pick-up games that were definitely not organized. When I got a new catcher’s mitt for Christmas, I wound up playing catcher, but then I became the proud owner of a neat fielder’s glove, much more to my liking.
Several of us had bats of various quality and a new baseball coming out of its cardboard box was a thing of beauty! The feeling of that unblemished horsehide cover! The smell of the leather! It seemed almost a crime to destroy that magic, but it would soon be put into play. Since a new ball cost fifty cents or so when the hard labor for a 60-hour week was about $30.00, the ball was used until it became a misshapen orb, sometimes held together with black friction tape to repair the frayed stitching and “innards.”
As summer approached September, football came into play, again just a bunch of us choosing up sides, and trying to pound each other into the dirt.
But our playing field turned into something special in late spring when the first billboards and posters proclaimed that a circus was coming soon – it was the city’s official circus field. We checked out the colorful scenes depicted on the advertising. What were their main attractions? Any Wild West show? What exotic animals were depicted? How many rings? (Very important to our ratings…three rings at least plus a menagerie) …
Most of the smaller circuses traveled in an assortment of trucks and house trailers. Some of the large shows like Cole Brothers and Hagenbeck and Wallace came on the railroad, unloading on the New York Central siding across from the present-day railroad museum (the former NYC depot).
Our neighborhood gang was always on hand to make sure everything was done properly. A small party from the soon to arrive circus usually made an appearance at the field to check the facility. They looked over the field’s condition, shape size, and source of water. In the early evening before circus day, trucks began arriving from that day’s show to start preparing for the entire circus to arrive during the night.
We neighborhood boys were up early circus day to look everything over especially the animal trucks lining Mill Street opposite the field. The cages were covered for travel, but we could hear the sound of big cats nervously pacing and rumbling to themselves. It was not difficult to locate the trucks carrying the elephants, camels, and horses because of their larger size.
The trucks loaded with the various tents poles, seats, and myriad other props were already spotted around the field in areas close to where they would be used. Usually the first tent to be erected would be the food tent, so the “roustabouts” could have chow before beginning to put up the tents.
The larger animals were also allowed out and staked down so they could be fed and watered. I never saw animals neglected or treated badly, for each animal was an investment in money and care. One memorable circus took four or five elephants and ran the down Grove Street to Township Park so they could frolic in the lake, which they did with gusto. We kids ran along with them, as excited as the elephants who lay down in the water and really had a ball as all elephants love the water. What wonderful photos could have been taken, but in the 1930’s cameras and films were just too costly to record everyday events.
Our house had a water faucet near the northwest corner that always attracted circus people wanting a bucket or two of water for their own needs. Some rang the doorbell to ask permission, but they also helped themselves if we weren’t home, but my folks never seemed to mind.
The big top usually ran east and west along 12th Street, while the Midway shows and the main entrance were laid out north and south across from our house. We kids all watched as the well-rehearsed roustabouts quickly drove stakes, put up the center poles, laid out the big canvas and erected the big main tents. Then the seats were quickly assembled, and the side canvas secured. Other crews meanwhile were putting up the Midway tents and a menagerie tent, if the circus was big enough to have one. Inside the main tents, circus aerial wire walkers, and acrobats would be carefully erecting the equipment their lives depended upon. They performed at least twice each day.
A few circuses had “Wild West” shows after the main performance. I remember seeing one of my favorite western actors, Hoot Gibson, as a featured star in one show with his beautiful horse. How lucky can a young lad be?
Everything was usually ready to go by 11 a.m., with the first performance at 2 p.m. Since the Depression was affecting every household, the admission fees were very modest.
From Remembering, the newsletter of the Conneaut Historical Society
March, June, 2004