Opinion: A look back at travelling carnivals in Potsdam
Friday, September 8, 2017 - 7:30 am

To the Editor:

Summers in the North Country were very exciting for us kids and, as always, all too brief—flying by in the blink of an eye. Growing up in 1950s Potsdam offered endless possibilities for exploration and adventure. The thought of a day outing in the family station wagon was a tantalizing prospect that would keep us awake for days in anticipation. Then finally the big day would arrive.

Mom would pack a Thermos of lemonade and a hearty multi-course lunch in the round, red and tan plaid Skotch Kooler, grab the Kodak Brownie camera, and off we’d go in the family car--by 1957 it was for us a two-tone green Ford Fairlane. There was no air conditioning in most cars then, and we relied on cranking out the small side vent windows to cool us off.

Popular excursions for North Country folks back then included trips to the Seaway (then under construction), fishing on the St. Lawrence River, swimming at Postwood Park, canoeing on the Raquette River, or, if you were really lucky and your parents had some extra cash, a day at Frontier Town or the North Pole. Frontier Town was a Western-themed town complete with a train that was regularly held up by bandana-sporting robbers on horseback. The North Pole was a magical place where you could visit Santa and his workshop and give him your wish list for Christmas (good luck on that account!).

If you were really fortunate and had friends with money, your big adventure might mean you could spend the day lounging around at a summer camp on Higley Flow. Whatever it was, there was excitement and adventure at every turn.

But of all the special summer activities in the North Country, by far the most thrilling was the traveling carnival. Talk about excitement! It was more than I could handle when I saw the posters announcing the O.C. Buck Show was coming to town. I would beg my parents to drive me out route 11 toward Fiacco’s Restaurant to see the advance team setting up in the field near by.

The grand opening would generate huge crowds as people came out for the rides, games, food vendors, and bizarre sideshows. It’s hard to explain the feelings that show generated in us kids back then, but let me just say, the excitement was hard to contain. Everyone in town would come out to ride the brightly colored Ferris wheel, the tilt-a-whirl, or the bumper cars. They were generally painted red, blue, or yellow and were lit up in all their glory at night.

I can still hear those shrieks of fear and laughter from riders of all ages and the sound of the carnival music blasting forth from big speakers mounted on poles.

My favorite event was a game of skill where you tried to toss a dime onto one of the glistening Carnival Glass plates or bowls on display in a round booth. If the coin didn’t bounce off, the dish was yours. I also liked to watch the teen age boys showing off by tossing a ball at a stack of wooden milk bottles attempting to win an over-sized Teddy Bear for their steady. And there were plenty of tasty treats guaranteed to please any palate: clouds of pink cotton candy and red sticky candy apples responsible for pulling out many a loose tooth.

There was usually a sideshow too with bizarre creatures forbidden to kids. Hidden behind dark curtains there were sword swallowers, men covered from head to toe with tattoos, and ones with alligator skin. And if that wasn’t enough, there were ladies billed as the fattest in the world and men as the tallest. Occasionally you’d see a dad sneak behind a curtain at the urging of some huckster to catch a quick glimpse of an exotic dancer announced as coming straight from some South Pacific island. There were usually animal acts too, but the smell they would generate in the heat of summer made them less enticing.

My favorite booth consisted of a relatively simple concept—the full-length convex and concave mirrors that made us look either fat and short, or tall and skinny. Our distorted reflections would make us double up with laughter.

But, after a three or four day run, the carnival we had looked forward to for so long would mysteriously disappear over night, leaving just an empty, open field and the elusive promise of a return next summer.

And so the summers would pass in a relatively unspectacular (by today’s standards) blur of activity until the school bells of September beckoned, and we were reunited with our buddies to focus on the serious business of preparing ourselves for what was to come.

Sandra Paige Sorell

Formerly of Potsdam