From Milking the Kickers, A Living History of Southwest Oklahoma
Carnivals, Circuses and Medicine Shows All Around
By Neva Lou Williams King of Altus, Oklahoma
I was lucky growing up along Highway 62, west of Altus, Oklahoma, because of the many carnivals, circuses, and medicine shows that I had the privilege to enjoy.
I was born in 1933 in the house my papa, Wesley Williams, built one mile west of Altus, which is in the far southwest corner of Oklahoma. He built his mechanic and electric shop facing the highway and our house behind it in 1926. There were empty fields to the east, north, and west of our house. Ballard & Grider Grocery Store, a filling station, and the Ballard’s house was across the road from my papa’s shop. A large feed store barn sat on the corner owned by the Griders. The settlement, which was somewhat isolated from the small town of Altus, was called Griderville. About three blocks to the east towards town was where the Goodwins lived and operated a huge dairy barn.
There were many railroad tracks about halfway between our house and town. There were four or five neighbor houses scattered around. The empty fields on the outskirts of town were a perfect place for the carnivals, circuses, and medicine shows to set up early in the fall. My mother, Lorena, always said, “They know when to come into town to get the cotton pullers’ money during the cotton harvest.” Cotton was, and still is, a huge industry in this part of Oklahoma. In the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s, it was so common for whole families to pull cotton, that schools turned out at noon every day to allow the children to help with the harvest and to make some money. In the fall, there was generally dew on the cotton ‘til close to noon, so no one used to pull cotton ‘til the morning sunshine dried up the dew. Carnivals and circuses were a big attraction back then. People came from miles around to enjoy them. (There were no televisions then. I didn’t see a television until after I married in 1951.)
Carnivals set up right next to our house every year. They were very colorful with their bright lights, pretty carousels (we called them merry-go-rounds), Ferris wheels, many rides, and music. They were pretty noisy and livened up the neighborhood after dark. We could hear the carnival barkers from inside our house, loudly inviting you to their stand, where you could play games and win prizes. There were shooting stands where you could shoot at little moving duck targets, games where you threw quarters into jars from a distance, and a place where a person would guess your age and weight. A very popular attraction was a manually operated machine that took half-dollar coins. As you turned a crank, a jaw-like apparatus reached down to hopefully pick up shiny watches, rings, and other jewelry, which were in a pile at the bottom. The jaws usually picked up something only to drop it just short of letting it fall into the slot for you to get it. Then there was always a hoochey-coochey girl who was always scantily clad in a coconut bra and grass skirt, or similar, on a little stage writhing around. The carnival guy on stage with her was enticing you to see more of her inside.
There was always a strong scent of cigars in the atmosphere. Almost without fail, law enforcement had to be called at least once during the week to deal with crooked carnival owners. Sometimes there was a maze house set up that was hard to find your way out of or a mirror house where every image of yourself was contorted and funny looking. It was fun just to stand in our yard and watch people on the rides, many screaming with glee.
My mother always saw to it that I got to ride the merry-go-round at least once while the carnival was there. I remember the thrill of getting to pick out which up and down horse I wanted to ride and waving to my mother, who was watching each time the horse went around. The decorated horses, the carousel, and the music were all so beautiful to me. I was afraid to ride the Ferris wheel until I was a teenager. Even then, it was scary to stop at the very top for others to get on the ride. I was always sitting with someone and it was neat to see “the world” from up there. Young couples could be seen all over the grounds walking arm in arm with the girlfriend holding a big teddy bear or some other prize their boyfriend had won for them. I remember that Cupie dolls and chalk Uncle Sam statues were popular prizes to win.
There were seven children in our family, but most were grown or married by the time I came along. We younger ones found ways to make a little money off of the carnival. I sometimes babysat for friends and kin children who were too young to enjoy the rides and everything. My sister, Ruth, would roll the carnival women’s hair. After the carnivals left, my brothers, Lawrence and Edward, found many coins and interesting things as they searched the trampled, pulverized grounds. The carnivals came three or four times a year.
The circuses, with their huge big top tent, always set up to the north of our house, where there was a big, empty field. They came one day and put on two evening performances and were gone the next day. Very early in the morning, we watched from our yard as the elephants pulled cables to erect the big tent. I remember my brothers carrying water to the elephants to get a free pass to the circus performance. Circus people were scurrying around doing what they could do to help—midgets, the tall man, and the fat woman. Circus sideshows were in small tents outside the big top. Brightly painted signs outside the tents wanted you to pay to see freaks, like the half-man half-woman, the wild man from Borneo, the 800-pound woman, and other freaks of nature, who seemingly had no way to make a living except to travel with the circus. There were few organizations then to help such people. Once, three guys got the idea to climb up on top of our house to peek at what was inside a tent for free. My papa had to wave a pistol at them to get them to get off our house.
There were many cages of exotic and wild animals lining the perimeter and house trailers that the circus people and performers traveled and lived in. The cages contained lions, tigers, rhinoceros, hippos, etc., which were certainly a curiosity, as many people had never seen such animals before. The lion and tiger act was a sight to see. So were the awesome, breathtaking, flying trapeze artists. The large circuses were called three-ring circuses, most of the time a different act would be going on inside each large ring. It was scary to see the lion tamer pry the lion’s mouth open and put his head inside the lion’s mouth. The clowns were always funny with their red ball noses, painted faces, and oversize shoes. Many times, they would drive around the ring in a very small car, stopping in a certain place, and about 30 clowns would get out of that small car! Looking back, they would’ve had to have a large hole in the ground for the clowns to come out of and the little car had to stop over that hole! Vendors selling popcorn, peanuts, candy, and drinks were hopping all over the grandstands selling all kinds of good things to eat, which were always very expensive.
I am 78 years old and throughout my years, I often have a déjà vu experience of a circus parade uptown when I was very small—probably about four years old in 1937. It was an extremely overcast and damp day and very early morning. Our family was standing on the east side of the courthouse and the parade was going north down North Main. I believe North Main was just a dirt road then. The circus had probably unloaded at the railroad tracks on South Main, probably going to set up that time in the Red Hills north of Altus. There were probably about 20 elephants holding each other’s tails. The big ones were at the head with the baby ones on the tail end. Every elephant was decorated and there were many colorfully decorated cages, many containing exotic circus animals. The cages were on wheels and the big “P.T. Barnum & Bailey Circus” logo signs were on everything. I am sure that was the first time I had ever seen an elephant or any of the other wild animals.
The medicine shows always set up facing the highway. They were on a large stage. I remember one especially, across the highway, facing Papa’s business. There was music, singing, entertainment, and humorous skits and, of course, always an emcee selling bottles of some “cure-all” tonic. Many called it “snake oil.” No one really knew what was in it. Once, my mother bought a bottle of “Naturetoan” at the medicine show. It was supposed to help stomach problems. She continued to buy it by mail for quite a while. She thought it did help her. One humorous skit I remember was a funny man changing a doll’s diaper and being surprised to find it full of mustard!
A lot of happy and fun memories of those carnivals, circuses, and medicine shows! They were still going on when I married Arthur King at age 17. I’m still living in that same location where I was born in 1933, one mile west of Altus, Oklahoma.