Circus Flare Tells A Story of Early Joys


Reprinted from The Rushlight , May, 1955. Originally published in The Boston Transcript, March 23, 1929. Copyright The Rushlight Club. All rights reserved.

"Probably few people, especially those dwelling in cities, can do anything more than make a vague guess at the identity of the contraption shown in this article.

Image of a Circus Flare

"To older men, particularly those country-born and bred, the object will vividly recall boyhood memories of gorgeous parades, with blaring bands, of awesome and strange wild beasts in iron-barred cages, of elephants padding noiselessly through village streets, to the consternation of all the old Dobbins within sight, of wonderful and entrancing feats of skill and strength, breathlessly witnessed beneath canvas tops from hard board seats by the light of rows of flaring, smoking torches stuck in the earth. For this is just an old-time circus torch, dozens of which were carried by the small travelling circuses of the last century. Now and then from some forgotten corner or junk heap, one is found, but most of them have long since passed into oblivion, as they were supplanted, first by coal oil or kerosene lamps, then by gasoline torches, and finally by the various forms of electric lighting.

"This particular specimen has evidently found some sheltered and forgotten nook, for its green paint with the creamy decoration is still in good condition, and the four-foot pole with its tip sharpened so as to be readily thrust into the ground, is still sound.

"A friend of middle-age to whom this torch was shown, told me that he had vivid memories of having one laid across his back and legs on more than one occasion, in no gently manner, by irritated circus men, when he was trying to see the show, as small boys were wont to do, by squirming his way under the circus sides, instead of using the more prosaic method of buying a ticket.

Torches long in use

"Even with the larger consolidated shows, which boasted two and even three rings and which used the more modern methods of lighting the big top for their evening shows, and in travelling disdained the weary night marches over winding country hillsides for the quicker and easier flat cars of the railroads, these flares of torches were long used for the dismantling and loading at night, and the unloading at the next stopping place in the gray dawn of early morning.

"...My chum and I would arrange some sort of signal, I think once or twice one of us tried tying a string to a toe, letting it hang out of the bedroom window to be pulled by the other fellow, then we would stealthily dress and steal out into the chilly darkness of early morning.

"We were not far from the railroad yards and sometimes arrived before the long trains of flat cars carrying the cages and general wagons, the box cars for the horses, and sleepers for the performers. Walking alongside the cages, listening for strange noises which might indicate the mysterious beasts within, we would be driven off by rough unkempt, sleepy looking men, many of whom would be sleeping in canvas hammocks slung between the axles under the great vans loaded with tents, poles, canvas, seats and other circus paraphernalia."

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