Lake Winnepesauka

Lake Winnepesaukah

I left that curious mix of animal trainers and ventured east. With my livestock on board and the orange bus in tow, I headed toward my role as show painter at an amusement park to help them get ready prior to their annual opening in the spring. After the final bend in the road, I found the entrance to the quiet park.

Being familiar with the components of a working carnival, what I found at this amusement park expanded my understanding of this unique business. First, I found Glen Bergathon who was not only the manager but a gracious host. He gave me a tour of the quiet park and pointed out several projects for me to work on. He also found a place for me to keep the livestock. I housed the horses in one of the many picnic shelters.

Lake Winnie, as the locals lovingly refer to her, was a quaint, folksy place. A regional favorite, the park had many permanent attractions in buildings. The park had both features that did not exist on a traveling carnival and old favorites found on every midway.

Among the permanent attractions at the park were a flume ride alongside the lake, a large dark ride in a building with two roller coaster-like dips across the front, an elaborate forty-horse carousel and the wooden roller coaster. Portable rides and park-model rides were set up all around that made an impressive line-up.

Off the main thoroughfare was a road that went behind the attractions and up to several large metal buildings with a variety of equipment, park components, trucks and trailers all parked haphazard.

The shop in the middle was where the work took place. The men handled projects for both the park and the working carnival that were parts of the Floyd and Baxter operation. Although I never painted on their traveling show – called Cumberland Valley Shows – I did decorate rides that came to the park for rejuvenation and repaint. When these were complete they resumed their role on the road.

Inside the dark shop building the crew accomplished various tasks. One old man had a comfortable work station in the corner. Old George rebuilt bumper car motors full-time. Floyd and Baxter had several bumper car rides touring and in stationery locations besides the large one here at the park. All the worn motors were sent here to old George to rebuild. They usually needed brushes and bearings. A friendly fellow, as he worked I heard colorful stories of when he was a young ride man around the Olsen Shows.

I found an area in the shop to make patterns, create designs, cut out fancy shaped sign boards and plaques. I coated-out these boards and decorated them to give the attractions personality. I studied old time advertising examples and created period looking signs for the old-time railroad station, the carousel, rides in Kiddie Land and created an Alpine themed sign for the Sky Ride that took passengers across the lake.

I also airbrushed scenery on several spectacular rides. The Himalaya was one.  I painted snowy mountain scenes with skiers in abundance on all the panels. The Rotor had been renamed the Black Hole. That ride received my painterly touch with images of the galaxy and dimensional lettering.

Over the years the park provided me with a great place to break up the jump from Florida back to Michigan. I left eighty-degree tropical weather each year and found the chilly spring time in Tennessee. Because of the permanent situation here, my signs lasted a long time compared to the beating my art received on a traveling show.

Mary joined me that spring in Chattanooga. We had a plan. She would help out and when the sign work was complete here at the park our T-shirt painting service would resume on the carnival midway in Michigan. 

We entered into our rhythm of horse care, sign making and living our lives together. We were very much alike. I was a workaholic who found satisfaction with my accomplishments. I aspired greatness with my horses. Mary wanted to belong more. When my work was over she wanted me to teach her how to ride Bingo.

The process of learning to ride a horse involves correction before the student starts to produce commendable behavior. I learned the hard way that my attempt to teach the skills of horsemanship to my love interest was not always a good thing to do. After listening to me point out flaws and make demands for her to comply with, Mary became sullen and retaliatory. All I could see was the goal she wanted and what was needed to get there. Those sessions contributed to our not getting along. Apparently, I was suffering from compound ignorance; I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I was not effective with cheerful support. Encouragement and reassurance would have been helpful. We also became aware that our drinking may contribute to the unrest. We had the pattern of drinking every day.

In the midst of this tension we actually agreed that our beer consumption was what interfered with our finding harmony. So, we agreed to not drink but we did not know how to not drink. Regular consumption had a stronghold.

As we attempted to be with each other and not drink, tension mounted. We did not know what to do. After several hours of this tension, we relented and went to get a six pack. Then we experienced an immediate sense of relief. The tension melted away as the amber beverage did its magic. Years later we learned about the typical symptoms that exist with alcoholism. This was one of them. We must have been in an embryonic stage back then. 

As Memorial Day loomed, the park prepared to open. We moved the horses out of the picnic shelter to an area where the public did not go. I moved the horse trailer behind the roller coaster and set up my canvas awning on the side to rig up a stable. This placed the horses near an area filled with grass. The coaster ride was silent most of the time I was there.

Because my two animals had bonded, I simply tied one of them up and let the other wander around to munch grass. They stayed in proximity of each other all day while I worked elsewhere.

As opening time for the park grew near, Jack and the coaster crew had to get their ride ready. The steel track had a thick coat of rust from lack of use all winter. Jack explained to me that when the train went around for the first time each year the rusty track slowed it down. If the train was too slow to make it over one of the hills, he had to climb up with a come-along and winch it over each hill. During the first coaster run of each year, Jack always kept his fingers crossed.

In preparation for the first run of the coaster train, I tied Bingo along the coaster fence and let Sassy walk free. At first, the roaring sound of the coaster train going down the first hill terrified them.  Bingo strained at his tether and Sassy ran away. A moment later the sound came from the other side. Jack was glad. The train made it all the way around. The horses resumed their grazing. As the days went by, the horses actually got used to the noise. They remained calm in the midst of this unusual racket.

I finished up all the sign work about the same time as the park opened. Lake Winnie turned into a bustling center of activity. Busloads of kids and cars filled the parking areas opening weekend. I enjoyed seeing my finished work adding to the fun. I enjoyed this time at the park and all too soon, it was time to go.  We bid adieu to our friends and loaded out. We headed toward my parents in Arkansas prior to going to the next work situation. The concessionaire in Kansas wanted me to create graphic paint jobs on his ice cream trailers and get his fleet ready to go.

Hugo, Oklahoma

Hugo, Oklahoma

During the winter of 1973/74 I was in Hugo, Oklahoma the understudy of Bob Grubb, who had a background of performing with circus liberty horses for many years. Now he was teaching me while training my pony liberty act. Out of the original ponies purchased the year before, four matched up nicely. Once introduced to this group of palominos, Bob began to observe minute distinctions that existed between them and comment about what he saw. He began to name them, talk as he handled them to find out about their temperament, and began to visualize a logical sequence for them to assume.

He named “Buster” first, who had the most handsome conformation of the whole group. I named “Buttons,” who had the color of a new penny after my beloved first grade teacher. “Tex” had a long back and Bob had a concern about his being juggy, whatever that meant. “Teddy” was a willing animal but seemed frail compared to the rest.

We rigged tie-stalls for the comfort of the ponies along one side of the ring barn and parked my camper and trailer nearby. Anticipating this project, Bob had his ring curb already installed in the central area of the barn. He was eager to begin training. We quickly adopted a routine. After chores and breakfast every morning, training took place.

The universal attitude among the community of animal trainers around the circus is that animals always come first.  As I woke each morning, the first thing I did was go into the barn, grab a foot tub, fill it with water and offer each pony a drink.  When they had their fill, it was time to feed. Nose bags received a scoop of feed each, a blend of oats and sweet feed. The ponies anxiously nickered and cavorted in anticipation while I slipped the strap of each nose bag over their ears. The animated scene transformed as each pony became content to chew the sustenance that now hung conveniently under their lips.

Now I could retreat and fix myself something to eat.  In the interest of efficiency, I developed a way to fix a Hearty Breakfast and only have to wash four items when complete.  First, I would boil a potato in the coffeepot.  When cooked, I would mash it in a frying pan and move it out to the edges. In the middle I put a few strips of bacon. A pot of coffee would then get prepared in the coffeepot and I would break two eggs on top of the mess in the frying pan.  When the food was ready I would eat it right out of the pan.  After my meal I only had to wash the coffeepot, one coffee cup, a fork and the frying pan.  Then it was time to get the chores done before Bob arrived to begin training.

Bob arrived each morning with an agenda that was clear to him. As I watched, one at a time, Bob would gently coax each young pony into a sequence of actions at the end of a tether rope or lunge line.  The pony was first encouraged to walk around the ring out against the curb.  Bob constantly talked to them with a gentle demeanor that proved to be very effective.  “Walk,” “git up,” “there now,” “whoa,” “come in line,” “good boy,” were all soon part of each ponies understanding and my verbal repertoire.

The whip was used to communicate with each animal as an extension of his arm and was only used gently as an aide to help push or suppress forward motion when needed. Introducing each animal to the whip involved letting them get acquainted with it. He touched them with it and let them sniff it. While in the ring he used a variety of specific body gestures like pseudo semaphore signals that became part of communicating and asking for responses from each pony.  Bob was careful to not scare the animal needlessly and was quick with a verbal reward or a lump of sugar when any youngster responded willingly to his cue. As the days went by, each pony began to grasp what Bob was teaching and the lunge line was discarded.  Soon, two ponies were working together in the ring. Only three weeks into the process he had the whole group of four in the ring.

Repetition teaches.  The sessions were at the same time each day, every day of the week except Sunday.  The result of this consistency was a tremendous amount of progress in a short time. The correct response was also fortified with another form of reward. When they did a great job, he would often simply end the session.  The understanding each equine accumulated soon proved Bob’s technique as being effective. Those hours of observing the tedious training process would prove valuable when my turn came to do the training.

The most important concept for any liberty horse to grasp is something that is not visible when the audience watches them perform and that is to stay in the ring.  This is taught by never allowing them to have the experience of being outside of the ring or, when they do jump over the curb and get out of the ring, make sure they have a negative experience while on the outside to cause them to desperately want to get back into the ring.  Bob had a rope barrier elevated around the outside of the curb, at shoulder level to a pony, for them to run into if they did jump out of the ring. I was outside of the ring. My job was to be the bad guy. During one point in the training, one of the ponies got the notion planted in his head that he was going to go somewhere else and jumped out over the ring curb at the same place in the routine every time we rehearsed. I was on the outside of the ring with a whip in my hand. I would yell, chase and swish the whip in an effort to strike terror into the heart of this cute but misbehaving equine. The moment the pony jumped back in the ring, I stopped with my terrible animation and Bob was quick with an assuring word. He appreciated the fact that I was there and he didn’t have to be the bad guy. I was learning how these little guys became predictable and how important it was to interrupt negative behavior as it happened before it became established.

Another important response to establish with each animal is to halt whenever asked.  This is especially important if the horse should become rattled, because from a halt, the trainer has a chance to personally connect, calm down and reassure the horse. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in a dusty ring barn with aspirations of glamour and excitement, taking Functional Relations 101 from an old cowboy. Learning these functional strategies would prove helpful in other arenas later in life.

The circus ring is a special, highly regarded, almost holy place. In my role as drummer for the circus, I served in a capacity that complimented the other performer’s efforts.  Now, as I assisted the training of my ponies from outside of the ring, I looked forward to the time that a rite of passage would occur placing me in the limelight for the first time. Not only would the duties as the trainer of the ponies be passed to me but also the transition of contributing to the show from the bandstand to graduating as a performer and working in this revered circus ring. I still recall the moment when Bob had me join him in the center of the ring. At first, I stayed behind him, as he demonstrated how to encourage them through their paces, simply allowing the ponies to get used to me. Then the time came for me to hold the whips while Bob instructed me, first from standing behind me in the center of the ring, and later from outside the ring. This was the beginning of what became a long, rigorous and rewarding experience.

As I look back, I realize the ponies were God sent, and an opportunity for this teenager to become functionally relational in the midst of being intensely emotional, perfectionistic and self-sufficient. Ponies don’t understand anger and erratic behavior. Representational communication means nothing to them. Progress was made with kindness. The ponies forced me to become functional, aware and consistent with my behavior. This must be the source of the term having horse sense.  The animals learn through intentional repetition and functional consistency. For the sake of becoming a good horseman, I modified my behavior around them. Even though with people I remained reluctant, isolated and often frustrated and angry. Over time, my role as a pony trainer became a segue that facilitated finding connectedness with others.

Season Two of the Circus

Season Two of the Circus

The plan for the second season was to spend another summer in Michigan, and then pursue a route that would take us to Texas where we would winter in the sunshine of the Rio Grande Valley. The season opening meant that I changed roles, morphing from fabricator and decorator into assuming the set-up and tear down of the side show on the one day stand routine that brought circus entertainment to small towns. During the Fisher Bros Circus season of 1972, I was moving a 30’x60’ tent, had eighteen animals on foot, eighteen animals in cages with two men working for me. Soon a hippopotamus would be among the component of animals.        

The second season also introduced twin bandstand trucks to flank the back door of the big top. Marie Loter was on organ and myself as drummer and announcer.

Another attraction was added to the concessions for the second season of Fisher Bros Circus.  Jim Kernan brought his small Wienie Wagon concession stand. Jim’s presence offered candy apples and hot dogs to the audience in the seats. Each afternoon Jim would sing in a pleasant baritone while he made the candy apples.

Jackie also showed up from the rodeo scene with her tight and bright metallic looking western wardrobe. She presented a whip cracking act and commanded a lot of favorable attention. Jackie was a good-looking lady and her traveling companion was a large white dog.

During the first season, our show had no water wagon.  Raymond Duke was the show’s agent who always booked the show on a lot with a water access. One of the new pieces of equipment in season two was a water tanker. In order for my camper/bandstand pickup to qualify for paid fuel on the show, I was recruited to pull the water wagon. The wagon was made from a pickup truck frame with an elongated square tank resembling a box. Towing the water wagon required that I stop prior to coming onto the lot to fill it each morning. I quickly learned how to divine water from unfamiliar towns and counties.  

I discovered that getting water for the circus would get bogged down in red tape if I sought permission. I figured out how to speed things up. During the week, all churches were mostly vacant. To find a church with a hose bib on the outside of the building provided fast and easy access to water. Weekends, when church was busy, I would look for a school to get water in the same manner. But filling up a several hundred-gallon tank with a water hose took time. So to not hang around looking suspicious while the water filled the tank, I began to take early morning walks once the tap had been turned on. This allowed me to enjoy exploring the new town while not arousing suspicion that water stealing was going on. On the walks I discovered old remnants of feed mills, thriving downtowns and lunch counters in the local drug stores. Neighborhoods provided an endless variety of visual wonder for me to observe. I found I could enjoy olfactory stimulation while the water tank was filling.

Circus entertainment in the early seventies still had influences that lingered from the day of horse and carriage. Famous jungle explorers had brought exotic animals to the forefront of the imagination of every child. The exploration of the world brought many live attractions for touring entertainment productions.

Northern Ohio contained the winter quarters and farm of exotic animal showman Tony Diano. The opportunity to purchase his hippopotamus included a large animal cage semi-truck that sported a large water pool and a platform for the feeding and comfort of Ava the hippo. She was named after a popular movie star of that era.

Ava the hippo needed a change of water in her pool daily. I received more cherry pie with the support duties of Ava. Every morning the swampy water had to be dumped on the edge of the lot to lighten the load before the jump to the next town. Once at the next lot, I began the erection of the side show tent and one of my men scooped the hippo cage clean. Then, I took the hippo semi downtown to the fire department and asked them to hose down the hippo and fill the tank. This task was always met with enthusiasm and drew a local crowd. When the tank was full, the heavy rig was carefully driven back to the lot and positioned adjacent to the side show for the paying patrons. 

 Animal presentations with various creatures accomplishing all manner of feats were part of traditional circus performances during the golden era and they were appreciated because the general population still had horse sense, due to their connection with horses.  People revered and cherished the special gifts of a trainer who coaxed his animals to accomplish amazing feats.  I developed a passionate interest observing the unique skills of the trainer of circus animals while drumming for these acts during the show. Discussions between shows and particularly at the cookhouse with trainers reflected this.

Billie Grubb was our cook. She was plump, short and her perpetual smile accompanied plain cotton clothes. She had a sprout of short grey hair. Her country accent radiated from the kitchen in a converted white school bus with red lettering and scrollwork down the sides. A small tent with portable tables was set up beside this galley each day. Breakfast was a challenge sometimes, depending on the lay of the land. The largest and flattest area on the lot was primarily used for the big top and seats, and the show cookhouse tent was sometimes set up on a hill. Because of this, the dining tables were often slightly tilted, creating a challenge when eating pancakes. Instead of pouring syrup onto the stack and having it run off the side of the paper plate, we learned how to first cut a square hole in the middle of the pancake stack and pour the syrup into the hole.

A peek at my future occurred while standing in line at the cookhouse. Billie always graced us with encouraging conversation. She noticed my interest in trained animal presentations. As I inched toward the kitchen window, I heard an innocent enough observation about my interest with performing livestock.

“Hey Drummer Boy, you ought to have a pony act of your own” suggested Billie the cook as she dished up my meal.

The others on the show observed my fascination with Liberty Horses. The harmony between the trainer and a group of horses performing At Liberty, or without any tethers or restraints of any type. This is traditionally regarded as being the most elite of the circus performing arts.  From the bandstand, I observed these liberty routines at every show and in the backlot, interacted with the same animals as I helped the trainer with his chores.

“My husband could train them for you,” Billie continued as I left her proximity with my meal and sought a seat.

Our cook was from Hugo, Oklahoma. She was the wife of Bob Grubb, an old-time cowboy and horse trainer. Together they had a liberty horse acts and other performing horses in many shows over the years. She suggested that I might want to meet her husband Bob someday and see if he could help me train an act of my own. This invitation prompted a new flood of ideas.

My First Blog Post

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m all about the circus, living my life as a creative artist and how wonderful my life with horses has been. I have many stories to share about my interesting life and have finally begun getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more and let me hear from you. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

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