When the circus came to town
As I See It
Robert 'Boots' Chouinard
The Daily News of Newburyport, MA
Mon Jul 30, 2012,
During my childhood, circuses came to Newburyport regularly about this time of year. They weren’t large circuses, mostly one ringers.
I’ve been told that one year when I was very young, Tom Mix came with one. Apparently I was unaware of his arrival; otherwise, I would have been there. He was an idol of mine, being such a popular cowboy star. Another year, I was told, a tribe of Sioux Indians arrived with the circus.
These circuses came here by train. They would disembark at the freight yards next to Bartlet Mall. The tracks were located where the CVS Pharmacy is today. I can remember there were three sets of tracks. A couple of winters later in life, I worked there for the railroad shoveling away snow from the tracks to clear the switches.
In the mid-’30s it was announced that a circus was coming into town. My brother Lionel, who was 5 years older than me, asked me to join him to see the circus train arrive. Having a big age difference, we didn’t do things together often. However, I did agree to go. We arrived on Pond Street very early the next day; it must have been around 4 a.m. Sure enough, there was the circus train parked in the freight yards.
It didn’t take them long to unload and line up on Pond Street. When they had their wagons in formation, we kids fell in the rear of the line. Slowed by the elephants’ pace, we walked down State Street to Water Street. We continued all the way down to an empty field on the left side of the Turnpike, just before the present airport.
We all watched as they put the various wagons onto the field. They laid the large tent on the ground and went right to work. It was fascinating watching the procedure. Crews of three-man teams would set the tent stakes into the ground. The stakes were quite long, about 3 to 4 feet in length. One person held a stake while two men with large wooden hammers would drive them into the ground. They worked with great rhythm, one would swing and then the other, while chanting. In no time the stake went into the ground. I remember how impressive that was.
When the large tent was up, that’s when we kids went to work. One of the circus hands would have us put something of value into a box. All I had was my belt that held up my pants. Our job was to bring in the wooden planks that were for the bleaches. We carried one at a time; they were quite long and flanked both sides of the tent. When we completed our task, we could reclaim our possessions. In return for our heavy labor, we received a ticket to the show. It seemed like little pay for all the work we did. I accepted my ticket gladly, since I had no money to purchase a ticket.
At the end of this era, circuses no longer arrived by train but by truck. Cashman Park became the new home for the circus. Whenever I ride my bike to Plum Island, I can’t help but recall that one circus that I played a part in at 12 or 13 years of age.