The pinnacle of our summer entertainment was the week of the Saxonburg Firemen’s Carnival. For an entire week our little burg was plunged into a whirlpool of pageantry and chicanery. The week began when the vans of the various attractions and rides would pull into town. The carnies were always on the lookout for cheap labor and if you were willing to drive stakes with a mallet or pretend you were qualified to assemble one of the rides, you could make a quick buck. Enterprising lads were well advised, according to Jeff Lardin, to avoid helping to disassemble things at the end of the week as the carnies were known to leave without paying.
The highlight of Monday’s activities was the pet parade. Youngsters of all ages were welcome to march with pets on display – but one had to conform to the rules promulgated by Saxonburg’s poet in residence, Marion Foster Smith. The rules were published the week before in both the Butler Eagle and the Valley Daily News. For the most part, they were simply instructions but there was a perpetual rule that “cats were wild animals and must be caged.” Some years, pets on parade would include a fish in a bowl. Prizes were offered. One could only guess the criteria. One year my buddy, Larry, injected a new dynamic by bringing a dog whistle to the parade with results that are better imagined than told.
The midway offered rides. The dubious design and assembly of these attractions caused some to walk by without stopping. I had the personal luxury of waiting until I got to Conneaut Lake where rides were – marginally- a bit safer.
I remember the barkers offering “interesting” spectacles. One offered the opportunity to see some really large cattle. “Look, look! Big boys! The biggest baron bulls alive! A product of the H-bomb. As big as elephants!” My brother and I paid to see these very large cattle. Honestly, they were almost 8 feet tall. You got what was promised.
A handwriting analysis machine promised to do just that. Larry and I submitted a sample. He wrote the first name and I the second. When fed into a gizmo with lots of blinking lights, a card was spit out the far end. It read: “Your Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality is evident.” Apparently whoever was operating the answers had encountered this attempted rouse before and was prepared.
They had spin art. They had a “museum” that promised a band of frogs. Inside the “museum” were several carved frogs “playing” musical instruments. I once knocked over the three wooden milk bottles and won a prize for Donna. I am certain I “won” because I was at the head of long line. The carnie must have figured I would be his “loss leader”. I am pretty certain nobody else that evening was as “skillful” as I.
The big revenue for the Fire Department came from selling pierogis and a game of chance called “Chuck-A-Luck”. Back in the day when the only gaming in Pennsylvania was at the local Catholic Church on bingo night, there were a lot of interested folks playing the wheel.
Thursday night featured the main events. Numerous fire companies from near and far had come to see how well they could shoot a stream from their fire hoses to push a 55 gallon barrel down the street. The firemen’s parade featured high school bands and fife and drum corps from the region. My wife’s high school came from Saegertown, one hundred miles away, to vie (successfully) for the prize money for best marching band. The Knoch Band would always march and they always looked great and played wonderfully. There were, of course, dozens of red and chrome trucks showcasing the often under-appreciated work of these folks we now call “first-responders”.
It is easy to look back and laugh at the Saxonburg Firemen’s Carnival. Looking closer, one sees that this was a happy celebration that provided fun and demonstrated pride that most certainly spoke well of the borough.