Sunday, February 28, 2010
Mary Jacobs: Feeding a Circus
Preserving family stories is the main motive of most of the Hale Street Gang. This one is priceless. Mary's son, Joel, was just out of high school when he ran away with the circus one summer day. The following summer, he brought the entire circus home to dinner. His mother recalls the experience in this piece. The sound track was recorded by Greg Sharrow of the Vermont Folklife Center; I put together the video with pictures from Joel's photo collection. Mary's text is printed below:
The day after his high school graduation, my youngest son, Joel, left home to spend the summer as a rigger with a college student circus, which had been in Randolph the day before graduation. The group had about 40 performers, a band, concession, horses, snakes, dogs, and an elephant. They toured from Maine to Virginia with two shows daily, each day at a different location. Joel returned home in September to attend college and left again the next May to be head rigger.
Mid July of the second summer, they were in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where my daughter lived, so the family went down to see Joel and the circus. I learned that head riggers are responsible for setting up and dismantling tents and all apparatus for the acts as trapezes, tightwires, etc. Everyone had multiple duties and Joel rove the snake truck where he also slept.
As we were saying good-bye to him, he asked if Betsy (my daughter in law) and I could do him a favor. The circus was coming to Randolph in late August and he wanted us to provide the evening meal for about sixty people. We said, sure, thinking a barbecue in the backyard, but he was thinking a meat and potatoes meal. We said okay, not quite sure how we could do this.
First, the menu. We decided on scalloped potato, because it could be prepared early and reheated; roast beef, because another son raised his own Angus beef cattle, and there was plenty of meat in the freezer; corn on the cob; and cakes for dessert.
Remember, this was thirty years ago, and almost everyone in Randolph knew someone in each family. Soon, promises of food came to us from many people. There was a bushel of corn from a local corn grower, milk both chocolate and white from Sprague’s Dairy, potatoes, casseroles, desserts, rolls, maple syrup, sodas, and even a huge venison roast from the Fish and Game Department. Everyone wanted to help feed a circus.
The day arrived, hot and humid and threatening rain. The circus arrived about 6 a.m. and started setting up in a field about a five-minute walk from the house. Mid morning, Joel and some friends arrived to take showers. They kept coming and coming, and hot water and towels soon became a problem. Towels were thrown into the dryer without washing and hot showers soon became cool showers. Telephone calls to the neighbors for help and the young people were sent around the neighborhood and were greeted with hot showers and offers of food. It was a first for many of them to be welcomed by strangers into their homes.
Food started arriving and we soon ran out of shelf and table space. The bathtub was full of desserts. More “help” calls to the neighbors to use their refrigerators and ovens.
It rained and rained all day and was still very hot and humid. The circus group arrived about 4:30 and soon overflowed into the basement and attached garage. Someone started a roaring fire in the living room fireplace. Picture this: a house full of young adults, a family trying to finish preparing and serving good to sixty people, the stereo blaring and a roaring fire in the fireplace on a hot, rainy day.
The circus cooks had been told to offer their help and their relief was obvious when told this was their evening to relax and enjoy.
Rachael, my granddaughter, was three, and the clowns came in full costume ready to entertain her. She took one look at them, started crying, ran into my bedroom, shut the door, hid her head under a pillow, and could not be teased or bribed to come out of the room.
The snake charmer, a pretty dark-haired girl, kept close to my son Jeff, who was busy slicing meat, boiling corn, and helping wherever needed. She finally said, “I’m not putting the make on you, but it has been a long time since I was near a clean male wearing aftershave.”
In the garage, Gail, my daughter-in-law, gave Joel a badly needed haircut and beard trim. Soon she had a waiting line until she said, “No more.”
You cannot believe the amount of food they ate and how often we heard, “It is so nice to be in a house.” The remaining food was packed and given to the cooks to take with them for the next day. Everyone was still sitting around and the manager finally said, “We have to go. We are going to be late starting the show.” There were passes to the show for all the neighborhood children.
After the show, tents were taken down, trucks loaded and they left for St. Johnsbury. Two years later, one evening, a young man was at the door with the largest backpack that I had ever seen. He explained he had been with the circus, and was now hitchhiking across the U.S. He saw the Randolph exit sign and was let off at the local bar where someone gave him a ride to the house after asking if anyone knew the Joel who was in the circus. He thanked me again for the great food and the relaxing friendly atmosphere of being in a house. A couple of phone calls were made, and he was on his way to meet Joel, who was living in Chester and attending New Hampshire Tech.