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Growing up with the Gypsies


Some days it seems like only yesterday that those wrinkly gray elephants were lumbering down the

ramp from the C.P.R. boxcar. The siding was just to the east of Main Street and that afternoon in

July 1944 was the big day. The midway had arrived!



It’s such a different world now with Christmas gifts common at eighty dollars each, but in those days I had to really save my pennies and nickels if I was going to enjoy the Fair. In my clock bank I had seven dollars. Surely that would be enough.


In my early years, my father was usually busy in the meat business and out in the country fighting poor roads buying cattle. The Fair was important in our early community and next to Christmas the big day for me. I could count on Dad to take me over to the C.P.R. tracks to see the whole midway roll off the flat cars and head up Main Street to the Island. Sunday afternoon was set-up day. It was

a festive afternoon for the town had not yet attained much sophistication and it was still cool to watch the Fair arriving - the start of three days of carnival atmosphere. The parade always led off with the elephants trunk to tail heading toward the bridge.


The Portage Fair represented a rare opportunity once a year in this depressed town for a guy to earn real money, not the small change earned from pin-setting or paper routes. Twenty-four dollars was the pay for three long days of very hard work selling tickets, operating rides and being there for the set up and breakdown. It was a far cry from our usual days activity in 'sleepy hollow'. We were

right in among the colourful fair followers, gypsies, fast talking barkers and con-men, gamblers, alcoholics and beautiful women that looked like Betty Grable. The midway people had but one goal in life and that was to remove sacks of quarters from the gullible. It was said there were prostitutes there but that was of no concem to us kids, the girlie shows were another world. The follies however did draw the largest front-tent crowds. Everyone enjoyed glimpses of midriffs and the barkers jokes, insults and enticements.


We wouldn’t have missed the whole thing for the world ! For some of us kids the Fair didn’t even end the morning the midway was again miraculously shipped and the grounds silent of mirth. Early that morning the more aggressive ones would bike over to once again “make a fortune” picking up lost change in the well trod earth in front of the diggers and bingo tables. Portage kids would be flat

broke the day after the Fair!


I however was content with three trips over to the Fair, and hopefully one would include the grandstand performance and the excitement of the midway at night. The crowds mixed with ribbons of light, the music, the smell of cooking onions and the sweet sugary aroma of pink candy floss. I would spend a rapt half hour as the barker tried to persuade the crowd to give up l0c and see the loveliest belles north of Chicago, the freak show actually had more appeal. Was there really a

man who was a human dynamo and could light a bulb by touching it? Was it possible for there to be a human being with the head of a dog as the painted canvases heralded?



The most popular show for the kids by far was Tom Mix and his talking horse. Yes, the horse could answer his questions, admittedly very basic questions and could count by pawing his foot on the ground. That horse was so intelligent you could see him eyeballing the crowd to see who would purchase the autographed photo of himself and Tom Mix.


As we got older we forged our way into all the shows, even the scary haunted house with tilting floors and maniacal laughter. There were two things I was forbidden to do at the fair, one was drink from the tin cup at the pump and the other was to hang around the girlie show. But eventually I was emboldened to pay 25c to see glamorous women like Lana Turner whom I’d seen at the Elite. They weren’t Lana Turners of course but they possessed glamour of a sort with long dresses and false eyelashes. As with all side-shows on the midway it was all about sizzle, not steak. I didn’t know what to expect from a follies show but instinct told me it should be more than the master of ceremonies trying to sell popcorn and souvenir programs of a show that didn’t actually exist!


The special attraction in a that long gone summer of 1907 according to the fly-bills stuck up all over town, was Professor Thomason’s Daring Balloon Ascension. Thomason lifted in a hot air balloon 2000 ft and jumped out with a parachute. He landed in our forest south of the race track. The platform show was costumed dancing, acrobatics, and a comic dog attraction. A show was always

successful with a talented dog!


Wednesday ended with fireworks before the grandstand. Roman candles, torpedoes and pom pom rockets called forth wild applause.


With reference to a Graphic of 1907 here is a partial list of the winners in exhibition judging that year. In the caged birds department, Mrs B.W. Hickman won first prize for her Belgian Canary, Mr. J .J . McCulloch came in second. (he was to lose his son in the Halifax explosion) and third Mrs. Pitcher. Mrs. A. E. Mellon won 1“ and 2“d prize for her parrots. The passion for parrots was a carry

over from Victorian times. Under Agricultural Products, directed by A. Batters and Edward. H. Muir, the contest was for the best two bushels of Red Fife wheat with the prize a fine medal. First prize was D.W. McCuaig, second F. McArthur, third, E. N. Brown.


Two sacks of Five Roses Flour ground by the Lake of the Woods Mill (our major industry): First prize, M. E. Tidsbury, second, D. W. McCuaig. In ‘Plants and Cut Flowers’, first prize Mrs. John O’Reilly. Under fruit grown in Manitoba - 6 varieties - first prize - V. Hood, Second - Mrs. H. Bullard.Under ‘plants’, one cactus, Mrs. G. Macdonald. One lily any variety in flower - Mrs. J.

O’Reilly. Cut flowers - first - John Kitson, Bouquet of wild flowers best arranged - Mrs. G. H. Lee. Sweet pea collection of distinct varieties- F.L. Newman. Pansies- Mrs. R. Jolly. Under fn1its- black currant - L. V. Hood. Under vegetables, beets, round, bunch of five, first - Rev. A. C. Garrioch, (a frequent winner). This is only a wisp of a long list of awards & ribbons of excellence. Portagers took

their agricultural pursuits very seriously indeed. In a era before radio and television, gardening was the past-time for fun and competition. (and food!)



Around thirteen I developed a strong desire to join the midway for it’s duration in Portage. I was after that twenty dollars too! However the parish Priest convinced mom that the midway was home to unsavory characters and, at the last minute, my summer job was squelched by I thought, an over- zealous priest.



As you know gypsies traveled separately but followed the Fair circuit. They set up their mysterious tents and swagged them with tassels and Persian rugs. The Gypsy girls sat in the front resplendent in red blouses with dark eyes and coal black hair, and gold jewelery glinting under the lights. The art of enticement was their age-old talent. Local men had only seen such glamorous painted women

in the movies. At my age then I assumed they read palms or tea leaves in the back, and perhaps they did. Phrenology was still a popular pseudo-science and gypsy tents commonly had a large drawing of a human brain portraying zones of lust, hatred, envy, jealousy, love, loyalty and virtue. Which zones they promoted in the back of the tent was anyone’s guess.


I’d never met anyone who had ever been into these gypsy tents and wondered as I passed by gingerly how they ever made any quarters. I’d never met a Gypsy but that quickly changed in my thirteenth year.


That summer our meat plant was closed during the Fair, and while I was alone there a green Cadillac of Gypsies arrived. They had a lamb for processing for a coming Gypsy festival. At thirteen I wanted to prove myself and foolishly said I would prepare it. When they came for it the next day, I informed them the new charge was $6.50. They all came in and harangued me about the evils of charging them more than last year, but once I had said $6.50, I was determined to stick to it. After screaming at me for some time they realized I was not to be moved, paid, and prepared to go, but as they piled into the Cadillac the old women turned to me and gave me the evil sign and proclaimed a Gypsy curse!


All that week I was ill with quiet foreboding. Those Gypsies had done me in!


Finally I went to Father Minvielle and told the patient priest about my curse. Well, he said, although he had never been called upon to do it before, there actually was an ancient prayer in the breviary for the exorcism of a curse, and he would say it for me. I was cured!


Next year my love of the Portage Fair hadn’t waned at all but I steered a wide path around those Gypsy tents.

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