The Hook and the Fleece by William Ogden Haynes

William Ogden Haynes recalls his grandfather's stories about the circus coming into town.

My grandfather used to tell me stories about the circus that came to his small town in the summer of 1885. As he told the story, he would become increasingly animated, as if he were reliving the memory. First, the men in the bill wagon mixed the paste from flour and water and used long-handled brushes to post large billboards on the sides of barns for forty miles in every direction. And on the day the show opened they held a parade, the streets lined with men, women and lots of children. They stood silent on the sidewalk until a resonant boom like thunder began to echo off the storefronts on main street.

The first to appear coming around the corner was a boy in a red and gold uniform pulling a large bass drum on wheels. A second boy was behind the drum beating it alternately with two felt-covered sticks. Just behind them was a uniformed brass band with hats, plumes

and gold braids playing Stars and Stripes Forever in time to the bass drum. Next came ten Clydesdale drawn wagons with red, white and blue painted wheel spokes, carrying lions, tigers, bears and a scantily clad woman with a sixteen foot python wrapped around her shoulders.

And animals were walking behind the wagons. Camels, llamas and elephants hooked trunk to tail lumbered down the street. There were fine Arabian horses from the equestrian acts prancing with beautiful women riding bareback. And when the band music had faded away, a horse drawn steam calliope rolled by playing Alexander’s Rag Time Band.

Dancing behind the calliope were dozens of clowns, some of them in a small wagon drawn by a donkey. Others had monkeys on silver chains and they all ran to the onlookers giving them candy and balloons on sticks.

Then came the daredevils dressed in capes and tight-fitting leotards strutting down the street with their chins in the air as if they were royalty. There were trapeze acts like The Flying Marconis followed by tightrope walkers, acrobats, jugglers and clowns on unicycles.

And this was always the point at which my grandfather’s enthusiasm seemed to wane. He would go on to say that at the tail end of the parade were the hawkers, ballys and shills that entreated the crowd to blindly follow the parade to a field on the edge of town, fueled by their excitement of the moment. There, they would be led to a tent where expensive tickets were sold for the evening performance. And next to the ticket tent, the midway was already set up with places for people to spend their money. There were games of chance, food concessions and exhibits of human oddities that could be viewed for only a nickel.

Grandpa said his family always went to the parade, but never to the circus. And as they walked toward home his father would tell them to take a deep breath of fresh air.


  1. this is really good, anticipation better than the real thing? often the case i think.
    evokes memories of being let down.

    michael mccarthy

  2. For a youngster in the late 1800's the draw of the circus had to have been almost overwhelming. The letdown, I think, came from not only the shyster nature of the circus setup, but, for a young boy, almost more so to miss out on all that excitement after such a buildup.

  3. Having is not so nearly rewarding as wanting? I liked it.

  4. For me it is not a story about anticipation being better than the real thing, but about a childhood disappointment that had left a long lasting trace. Well written and thought provoking.

  5. It is a privilege, to remember so vividly, in such detail, something your Grandfather remembered so vividly in such detail. To actually see through your Grandfather's eyes, one of, "The Most Amazing Things on Earth".
    Tradition is a glorious thing....