Topeka Daily Capital
Sept. 13, 1959
It is fair time again, and that reminds me that I’ve been to a few – and that statement reminds me of one of the oldest sayings in Oklahoma. A long time ago, it was proper to express amazement by saying, “I’ve been to two hawg-callings, a turkey shoot and a county fair but I ain’t never seen nothing like this.”
Actually, it was a long time before I ever got to a real fair, but I had a pretty good buildup to the real thing.
It started in the little town of Oakwood, Oklahoma, were the only thing that brought a carnival atmosphere to this Dust Bowl setting was something called a “Booster Train. At least, I think they were called Booster Trains. Some kind of trains.
They’d whistle into town and whoever was sponsoring the train’s excursion into the sticks would give away candy and goodies, and maybe there’d be some entertainment and a speech or two.
I can vaguely remember my older brothers screaming, “Booster Train” and we’d run for the tracks. At least I think they said “Booster.” I know we ran for the tracks.
Later, in Veteran, Wyoming, there was a rodeo or two and the exhilarating experience of buying a sack of peanuts. There was a trip to Cheyenne, too, for a big rodeo and my first movie, and I remember my mother telling me, “they say that someday we’ll be able to hear them talk on the screen.”
Back in Oklahoma, this time in Britton, there was a succession of medicine shows. They weren’t bad. There was music, a dancing girl, a black-faced comedian, and the pitch man. The pitch man was best.
Ever hear of Little Doc Roberts Tay-Jo Tonic? I remember the guy who used to peddle it from the stage of the medicine show – at $1 per bottle, three bottles for $2 or a month supply – 6 bottles – for $4.
“Friends,” he’d say, “a man asked me why I don’t peddle this stuff in Arkansas. He told me there’s more suckers there. Well, friends, I ain’t looking for suckers, I’m looking for smart people who want to feel better… ”
My first state fair was in Oklahoma City, and the toughest part was deciding what to spend the money on. I don’t recall how much money my dad gave me, but I bet two things – that it wasn’t much, and that it was more than he could afford.
I saw a lot of state fairs, and finally wound up working at 1. That’s a story. This particular summer I was working with C.B. Speegle, brother of Cliff, who now is Oklahoma State football coach, at a softball park.
One evening a young man came in and asked us if he could put a popcorn machine in the park. He said he’d give the park half of what he made. That night, he gave us about $15. Next morning Speegle and I bought a popcorn machine and told the young man. There wasn’t room enough in the park for both of them.
We were smarter than the young man. We gave the park 10 per cent of what we made, and we made out. That fall we put the machine in the state fair under the man who had the popcorn concession for the whole fair. He was smarter than we were. He took 80 per cent of what we made. And the next summer the softball park bought its own machine and told us what we told the young man.
Later, I worked for newspapers in West Texas towns like Borger and Odessa, and we got a lot of carnivals. I saw con men run out of town by the sheriff, fast talkers threatened by oilfield roustabouts and I saw the local 200-pound toughie whipped by the 160-pound carnie fighter who would take all comers.
Some of the other boys told me about the divided tents where you saw so much in the front half of the tent for a buck and so much more in the back half for 2 bucks. Me, I played Bingo.
They say that if you’ve seen one fair you’ve seen them all. I guess I’m still a country boy. I gripe, for the record, every year when I take the kids to the fair. But between you and me, I still like a fair. Any fair.