Itinerant Tradesmen and Entertainers
Long Ago in Naples, New York
At the beginning of the twentieth century, people who lived in the small towns of America, like those in Naples, could make use of services and products provided by artisans or peddlers who traveled around the country, some in wagons or carts drawn by a horse or some pulling small carts themselves. I recall seeing one or two pushing wheelbarrows that held their wares. It was a way of making a living in hard times. Before winter came, they retreated south to a warmer climate taking all their goods with them, carrying on their trade along the way.
Living where I did on Main Street not far from the business section, I was accustomed to seeing peddlers, especially as they often stopped at our house. My mother and grandmother would greet a tinker with all their tinware that needed mending. He carried a lump of tin or solder which he used for patching utensils. That was cheaper than buying new ones which were sometimes hard to get in a small-town general store.
There also was the umbrella man who had a small cart. He put in new ribs or replaced covers on broken or worn umbrellas, making them good as new. There was the scissors grinder who was very popular as he kept everyone's shears and knives sharp with his grindstone.
The peddler the ladies liked best was the one who carried rolls of calico, gingham, linen toweling, muslin for sheets and pillow cases, needles, thread, pins, thimbles, beeswax, buttons, hooks and eyes, lace, ribbons and everything housewives use in their sewing. Of course in those days clothing and household articles were all made by hand. The so-called well-to-do folks hired local seamstresses to do all such sewing for them, including making dresses and underwear.
At least once a year during good weather a traveling ragman came to our house driving his covered wagon, drawn by horses or mules, into our back yard to pick up old clothes which he exchanged for kitchen utensils, pails, dishpans, copper boilers, teakettles and anything of use to a housewife. They were of very good quality and lasted for many years.
I was fortunate to live on Main Street, so I rarely missed a hurdy-gurdy player or other wandering entertainers when they came to town. We children would follow them toward the stores where they would perform for a gathering audience. The organ grinder cranked while a little monkey, dressed in a colorful jacket and cap, ran around the circle of onlookers, holding out his cap for our pennies. The concert continued until they had collected as much money as they judged the listeners would contribute. I doubt the amount collected was often very bountiful, but usually enough to buy refreshments at a restaurant on their way out of town.
One time a man with a large brown bear on a rope arrived in the village. I was quite intimidated by the bear and kept my distance until the man had the bear dance. Then I crept closer until suddenly the bear hugged his trainer so tightly that I was sure that he would squeeze him to death. Then I ran home as fast as I could, sure that the bear would be on the loose.
There were traveling musicians, clowns and acrobats. Once in a while a steam calliope without a circus would appear. We loved that so much we would follow it part way out of town, reluctant to have it leave. Entertainers who walked from town to town usually slept in farmers' barns or in fields and haystacks unless a farmer was kind enough to take them in.
The Redpath Chautauqua brought a bit of culture and sophistication to our remote country village and gave us teens a look at the outside world. Local guarantors pledged $150 to the Redpath agency to assure village support and ticket sales in advance of the scheduled program. The first day in town a large tent was pitched by a crew of college boys who, I remember, always wore white crew neck sweaters. The chautauqua remained a week with morning entertainment and classes for children—cartoons on easels, games, plays, etc.—all very educational for children under fourteen. There were afternoon programs at one or two o'clock, running until four or four-thirty, and there were special programs for evenings. It cost $1.00 for each of us to attend all the programs presented over the whole week.
Cimera's Band came nearly every year and performed afternoon and evening concerts, playing marches and other music. One day every year they always played the "William Tell Overture." Each year a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was presented—a different one every year: "The Mikado," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Pirates of Penzance." And each year a play by Shakespeare, such as, "The Taming of the Shrew," "As You Like It," "The Merchant of Venice," "Macbeth," "Henry the Fourth" was produced—again, every year, a different play.
Russell Conner delivered his "Acres of Diamonds" speech. Lectures were always inspirational. Well-known senators and famous speakers, including William Jennings Bryan, orated. Comedians jested; choruses and quartets, vocal and instrumental, performed. The Welsh Imperial Singers came. Elsie Baker, a popular contralto, came often. When she was told of Fred Barker, a native of Naples confined to his bed for fifty years by paralysis, Miss Baker called on him and sang for him and sent him a phonograph and her records after leaving. She kept in touch for some time.
© 2001, Gladys Dunton
For more information on the chautauquas, see Paul S. Worboys' "The Most American Thing in America" in issues 78 through 82 of the Crooked Lake Review [these issues will be posted on line shortly].