Downie Truck 3-29-1931 Charleston Daily Mail (WV)
Made SunJay, MÂ«rÂ«A 19, 1931 Then Barnum, Hingling, Forepaugh, Stilt and other rivals for circus patronage grew too big for "wagon hauls. They took their three rings, their ten acres of tents and mammoth .menageries on special railroad trains from city to city and ignored small towns. Mud shows thus went "On the rails"; the hamlets were deprived of circuses; tented showmen became big city and big business fellows with a daily upkeep "nut" or overhead of $10,000. Until a few years ago these mammoth "railroad shows" flourished amazingly. Fortunes were made each tenting season. Railroads ran special excursions to circuses, each round trip ticket including admission to the world of wonders. Then the gasoline buggy entered the picture, displacing the horse-drawn surrey, the phaeton, the crossbar top buggy and finally the family box wagon in which the farmers' flocks had at- tinded circuses. Eventually it did away with railroad excursions, for farmers could h'tch up the tin lizzie and drive forty miles over concrete highways to the circus--and did, millions of them, annually. Motor cars increased the railroad circuses' prosperity and made night shows m small towns profitable; for country folk could do their evening chores at home, then "take in the circus" by motor car But automobiles and railroads also began to interfere with the enormous show* which traveled on special lailroad trains. Gas buggies so cluttered up big city traffic that the free street parades were generally abandoned; they couldn't get thiough the swarms of motor cais. At the name time the railroads raised transportation rates so radically that tariffs became almost prohibits e--as much as $1,500 a day. A tented showman must be adjustable, ruust meet vaijuig conditions to sumve. Perloimance and menagerie need not change in essential character, taut the show must be gotten o\er the load, must be puoted, conveyed "into the money," to the spots, where good business awaits it During the spring it must be playing South or in Eastern factory towns. In the summer it must follow the oats, corn, wheat or tourist country crops. In the fall it must come in behind the Southern cotton or sugar hai vests. Hence the need of mobility in transportation. Railroads were so busy hauling motor cars and motor car materials they couldn't bother with circus specials. Yet circuses had to keep moving. This problem was epitomized while I was visiting the Charles Spaiks show--a three- ring outfit traveling on fifteen sixty-foot special railroad cars--during a post-war tenting season. Mr. Sparks had started with two railioad cars, and had amassed a small fortune by hard work and daring. I expressed admiration for the clocklike regularity with which he ran his show. ' Huh," he drawled. "Any boob can run a show. The trick is to know where to put it." Meaning that moving and routing we IP hib worries. Into the post-war circus scene came Frank P. Spellman, who had been a show- n.an for thirty years. He had ideas and originality. He saw the possibilities of motor cars and motor trucks. Good hard highways were being built throughout the cc'untiy. He promoted a circus on motor vehicles. It started its tour in Ohio one spi ing. But it was an unusually wet spring. The trucks were too heavy. They bogged on soft lots and could not be extricated. The Spellman show "blew up" almost as soon as it opened. But smart showmen had heard of the Spellman idea. A minor showman named "Lucky Bill" and some other names which are not important, tried out a ton-truck system and took his show from Iowa into Pacific Coast territory. Another veteran showman named Andrew Downie, who is now in the Valhalla of all good showmen, studied this experiment from an Atlantic coasu viewpoint, sold his railroad circus at a piofit and began his experiments with motor vehicles. Four years ago, while motoring around Connecticut, I paused at Litchfield, made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I knew circus was in the vicinity because an old trouper can "spot a date" on a dead wall half a mile or more away. My car, from long training, turned toward the circus lot without any steering. The redoubtable Downie greeted me. It The buytr of Downto'f circus was Sparks, who had sold his circus property and "title" and was loafing. But Charley could not bear to be away from it. fall, in spite of continued rain, his was making hundred-mile jumps each through Virginia and the Carolinas, "getting up on time" and not missing a performance. In November Charley was triumphantly touring Florida, advertising selling the Downie wares. During this tour Downie's Show pitched for a day at Sarasota, where the Brothers and Barnum Bailey Combined Circus has its winter quarters. John Ringling now owns the original Sparks circus and title. Charley "made" Sarasota so cculd thumb his nose at Mr. John, for Charley had staged a spectacular comeback and was demonstrating the modern of circusmg on seventy-five trucks, three trailers and twelve motor cars. Among John Rmgling-, boss hostlers it ^ray-eyed Jake Posey, native of Posey County, Ind. Jake starred thiough Europe as the Barnum Bailey forty-horse --one of two living men who have forty horses, in one hitch, through the streets of any metropolis. Jake had been bos. hostler for the original Sparks circus. After the Downie street parade of green, \ \ Rough "This motor tiuck troupmg is the McCoy,' 1 he declared as he led me around his tented property. "I save $300 or more a day on railroad haul, vie don't have to unload wagons in the railroad yards and horse-pull all our stuff to the lot through the streets, for which the city fathers may dimand a special license. When we get to town we just stop at the lot, unload, set up, give a truck-pony-elephant parade and welcome the towners. ' On a wet lot like this one--and, you see. it's been raining--if a canvas, pole or seat wagon bogs down our roughnecks just gilly (hand cairy the heavy stuff to the highway; we haul the empt baggage wagons out by this caterpillar tractor, reload the wagons, ponies, elephants and the tractor, on trucks--and are ready to start for to- raoirow's town. "I got a better bet than that one," the veteran trouper continued proudly. "You know how many bieakfasts you've missed while railroading-, what with late airivals and even thing 1 ' Well, my cookhouse crew- tea is down light after supper, loads and pulls out lor tomoirow's town, sets up--and we never miss a breakfast 1 When the rest of the show teais down Â»t night all our people sleep on the lot. "The heavy stuff starts off about daylight, and makes t h n t y to sixty miles by 8 o'clock. About 7 the performers wake up in their houses, wash in their lavatories, step on the gas--and reach the next town all ripe and clean foi breakfast. You couldn't get those trouper back into Pullman cars, with two in a berth and two beiths high and cinders sifting onto them cmtmually. And we have no trouble parading little towns " My wife and I were guests of two veteran pei formers, Mr. and Mis. Gene Enos, of European ancestry. At the rear end of their house-on-wheels .'ere two berths, neatly cretonned. At one side mas a clotnes c'oset with hangers for clothes. In one corner was a lavatory. In-another corner was a radio. "We sleep quietly and comfortably on the lot," said Mrs. Enos mod- Geti-ing a Lou-Down on the Giraffe The house was as near aÂ« the well known pin. My gvpsy blood stirred sjmpa- theticallj What a glorious life for six months each season, tenting on the old show giounds from Florida to Maine! As I write these lines and the IBM season opens only five circuses are going out on rails. There used to be sixteen big ones touring by railroad. Before Barnum's became a lailroad show, in 1872, there were fifty mud shows touring America, When the Ringhngs went on rails, in the early '90% there were thirty well equipped circuses hauled acioss the country by teams. This season even the Mighty Haag Show --which stuck to mules for motive power through the long period of metamorphosis and whose two mighty elephants -have w-alked highways in leather shoes from the Gulf Coast to Michigan and return each season--is depending exclusively on trucks and automobiles for the hansportation without which no American circus is Â·pos- sible. E\en the famous Orton family w hauling all its circus paraphernalia, including performing horses and ponderous pachyderms, in trucks. Thirty-four of these hree-ring circuses and menageries are tenting on show giounds this cucus day--or will be when it gets a bit warmer The era of the motorized circus has arrived. Andrew Downie, of heroic memory, who fought his way through scores of tenting campaigns, closed his life's long season at Medina, N. Y., last winter. For three years he had kept trouping in spite of a chronic aneurism which threatened to kill him any red, gold and blue motor trucks w ith and banners and other appurtenances, had filed through Sarasota's streets with only the trained ponies, ping horses and elephants walking, Charley asked Jake how liked the parade. Jake chewed a minute on a straw he drawled, "Might be all right if it forty-horse team on the fir:; bandwagon." But forty-horse teams have gone mto hiding. Automobiles, buse' and trucks forced them off the roads. Horses are becoming curiosities. So are livery stables, Nick Burke's sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary Imogene, who lives in Red Oak, heard her father, who is my blessed er-m-law. make some reference last w a hveiy stable. "What's that?" demanded Mary Imoeene. She has never seen one, and likely ne\ei will Last spring Sam Dill, raised by t*e Gentry Brothers, whose dog and pony shows used to delight so many children, left the railroad circus business and launched a truck outfit at Bloomington. It was a three-ling circus with all tfa* trimmings There were more than fifty trucks, trailers and buses bearing his as gayly decorated as oldtime ckcu* wagons. They toured Indiana, West Virginia and Michigan, then headed across Southwest for the Pacific Coast. When Sam had finished his tenting season he tiaveled 8.000 miles and was in sou them California. Other circuses are perennial. Their apÂ» peal and attractions seldom change. Bit they keep up to date in methods of minute. "I got to keep busy or I'd go portation. Your circus will probably arrivf crazy," the veteran once told me heatedly, 'on trucks thij season--but It will be But the doctors finally made him retire, circus, so doi t forget it.