Opinion

Jourgensen: When the circus came to town

Circus elephants round the corner of Federal Street and Western Avenue a century ago when the circus set up on Hill’s Field where Childs Street now runs.

Walk up Childs Street in West Lynn and listen carefully: You just might hear the calliope playing and carnival barkers beckoning forth the young and the gullible.

Once bound by Wyman, Robinson and Walnut streets, Hill’s Field was the city’s circus grounds until almost a century ago when the flatland where apple trees grew and cows grazed was pegged for housing construction.

Cowboy actor Tom Mix and West Lynn circus musician Walking Mike Doyle entertained the curious and “Big Top” Jack O’Connell rose from the humble circus rank of canvasman to circus manager.

In its heyday, Hill’s Field hosted the greatest shows on Earth with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and Beeman’s Dog and Pony Show setting up on the field to entertain.

The big show rolling into town became a West Lynn-wide event with the circus train arriving early morning in the Bennett Street freight yards. Handlers led the great beasts out of wagons mounted on rail flatbeds for a parade through West Lynn en route to the field.

The parade included horses trained to do tricks, wagons loaded with tigers and bears, a circus band and clowns. Children rushed from school to see the parade and jostle for a chance to ride on one of the parade horses before rushing to the field to watch circus workers under O’Connell’s direction hoist the tent lines until they snapped taut and the Big Top loomed over Walnut Street and surrounding side streets.

The world is probably better off without snake charmers and sword swallowers, but the entertainment and power to bring people together for a spectacle was part of the circus’ charm.

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Butchie Barnes will be missed at City Hall where his knowledge of everything fixable also acquainted him with the city’s history. The “big gray building,” as the late William “Chub” Fallon used to refer to City Hall, has a labyrinth of passageways and crawl spaces and anonymous-looking doors and Butchie knows each and every one.

One of the doors opens onto the projection booth overlooking Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The two Peerless projectors are art deco artifacts preserved and, by all appearances, ready to spin reels and screen movies.

Another door opens onto a small landing and a ladder climbing at a perilously steep angle up to the door opening onto City Hall’s roof with its panoramic view of the city.

The old police call boxes used by beat patrol officers who walked through the building are still painted blue and mounted on a basement wall. Three generations of telephone technology are also intact and Butchie can point out where sound-absorbing cork still covers part of the auditorium floor.

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Always one to share historical snippets, Butchie recounted how Lynn’s 19th century Fire Department offered an arrangement to use residents’ work horses during the winter while city horses earned a well-deserved rest. He said the horses were fed and treated by veterinarians during the temporary city service and returned to residents in the spring when the city steeds were back under harness.

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Farewell to the late Maurice “Moe” Atherton of Peabody whose obituary was published in Monday’s Daily Item. One of the dwindling number of Greatest Generation members who served their country, Atherton’s exploits included serving as George Patton’s driver. I would have loved to sit down with Atherton and listen to stories about old “Blood and Guts.”

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