By Alex Currie
As the time for the fall fairs draws near my mind goes back to the fair as it was in the late 1890’s, now crowded 60 years ago. Almonte was a lively town in those days, with six mills running full blast and employing mostly young people. With no automobiles, the town was the marketing and shopping centre for the large surrounding farm community, adding to the local business.
Though mill wages were always below par, and measured by the yard stick of present day prosperity, the standard of life in those days was pretty low, still, no one knew anything different, pleasures were simple and people were probably more contented than they are now. The fair ran for four days then and was rated the best in Eastern Ontario.
Special trains came from both directions, bringing the bands and the crowds who jammed the station platform and the red station, now used as a freight shed across the tracks. The sidewalks on Mill and Bridge Streets could not accommodate the crowds, who jostled each other good-naturedly on to the road. The fair was an exciting time for us small fry.
The balloon ascensions, the fireworks, the steam calliope on the merry-go-round playing “The Sidewalks Of New York,” the cacophony of the midway, with the barkers calling their wares in raucous voices, “the cane you ring is the cane you carry away’ throw them high and drop them low and over the canes they are sure to go,,’ the two-headed calf, the horse with the crab feet, the man with his head through the canvass had difficulty dodging pitcher “Chibby” McGrath’s fast in-shoot. The direct hits would ricochet off his head.
At the fair we first heard Edison’s new phonograph, (listening to the tinny music from the cylindrical record through ear plugs, similar to a doctor’s stethoscope0. In a few years we were to see our first silent movies as a grandstand attraction, with the effect of rain pouring down the screen. In the wild west show, with its trick riding and its barroom shooting scene, the horse thief was dragged across the show ring on a long rope attached to the saddle horn of the bronco cow-pony and hanged in a realistic manner, with feet kicking, on the far side of the ring.
We kids lassoed everything in sight for months and gave our bloodcurdling cowboy yahoo. The farm folk attended the fair enmasse, interested in everything but particularly the livestock display and happy to visit with friends not seen for a year. The young farm boy eating his first banana remarked: “There is not much left after you take the core out.”
My most vivid recollection is of the sideshow with the wild man from Borneo, who ate snakes alive. The banner in front of the show bore the legend, “He eats ’em alive,” and depicted a ferocious looking savage surrounded by snakes, all with their fangs out. Inside the tent, this individual was exhibited in a deep, square, wooden pit, the top of which extended about four feet higher than the raised platform which surrounded it, and on which the customers stood, looking down at the wild man standing at the bottom of the pit, in straw above his knees and loaded down with chains.
This set-up was a tactical error on the part of the promoter, as will be seen later in this narrative. Though, of course, the wild man did not understand English, when urged to get busy eating these live snakes, he would reach down in the straw and bring up a very dead snake, skin it back and chew off a piece of its innards. Likely, he surreptitiously spat it out, later. A man with a peg leg was noticed sauntering around the town’s main streets, nonchalantly smoking a very civilized tailor-made cigarette and in the Davis House bar having a drink. (Incidentally, these drinks could be called civilized or otherwise depending if you were wet or dry). The liquor question, then, as now, was a live issue. The town was divided between those who patronized the bars and those who did not and who criticized those who did and the hotel-keeper who sold the fire water.
The drys had us kids of 8 or 10 sign the pledge and paraded us around town in a body, wearing our Band of Good Hope ribbons, chanting slogans. We hadn’t the foggiest notion as to what it was all about. But I digressed. The man with the peg leg was recognized as an Ottawa black man, and he looked suspiciously like our friend, the wild man.
At that afternoon and evening’s shows, he had a rough time of it and likely wished he were back in his Borneo jungle. The boys tormented him in various ways and tried to trick him into speaking English. He stood up very well under this for a time, just talking gibberish, snarling and rattling his chains, but when the boys started spitting mouthfuls of tobacco juice (tobacco chewing was a universal practice) on his defenseless head, his control broke and he swore at his tormentors in English and a couple of other languages, using good, round, Ottawa bowery cuss words.
The next day this sideshow was missing from the grounds. “They had folded their tents like the Egyptians and silently stolen away.” This sophisticated modern age, with its many attractions and amusements, cannot capture the thrill we got at the Almonte Fair in the horse and buggy days.