Peabody Singing Tower

 North Manchester, Indiana

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By William L. Scott [from CFH Files]

Unless you are an authentic North Manchester old-timer, or unless somebody already told you, you probably would never guess that the elegant Peabody Retirement Community with its stately buildings, its magnificent Singing Tower and its 25 acres of well-kept lawns was built on the site of the old North Manchester Fairground. Who could imagine that there was once a long cattle barn beginning at 7th Street and extending South to the end of the grounds, and that the hog barn started at that same 7th Street and went North. Who would believe that there was a log cabin standing a story and a half high, or that a Women’s Building charmed the area with its many displays and wonders.  And that there were horse  barns…enough to house 100 race horses. And what race horses they were…it is said that Charlie Anderson had a horse named Axie Jay that was never beaten. And Harlan Hayes, who now lives at Peabody Retirement Community, had a horse he called Dr. Frazier and he won in 1928, going on to an unbeaten season that year. Those were great horses in that day…great sulky racing horses.

It is said that the fair began somewhere around 1888, possibly following the great enthusiasm in the country of the 1876 National Centennial. Before the dependency on tax revenues for country activities, shares of the fair were sold to local citizens for $10 each. These shares proved to be terrible investments because nobody made any money on them. But they did provide capital needed for the establishment of the place. Fairs were not new to the United States, of course. Early agricultural fairs dated back to the colonies as a device to get buyers and sellers together much as they had in England and Europe from which the early Americans came. But the fairs of the mid-west, like the one in North Manchester, while heavily flavored with agriculture, were a far cry from the colonial days. As a matter of fact, the most important event at the North Manchester Fair seemed to be the horse races, the sulky races, which brought hundreds of people to see them.

The attraction of the races was supposed to be prize money and blue ribbons, and for the owners and racers, that was probably so. But for the spectators, it was the excitement of the events. Charging horses, seemingly breathing fire but racing with controlled passion, thrilled the hearts of every would-be race driver in the crowd, from 4 to 94. They were the biggest events of the fair and maybe the most spectacular events of the lives of some of these young and relatively isolated souls.

The North Manchester Fair actually came to town in the form of the Tri-County Fair Association. The main man for the fair was a wonderfully successful realtor whose name was John Isenbarger. As Secretary to the fair association, Mr. Isenbarger was pretty much in control of the whole thing. His long suit was enthusiasm and his experience over the years gave him the skills needed to continue producing fine fairs. Unencumbered with much education, he could speak the language of most of the fair goers. His pronouncement of a race horse from SI-OX CITY was not seen as particularly unusual for people who didn’t know much about the world beyond the boundaries of Indiana.

Which brings up another point: Fairs were pretty much the event of the common man. Persons of stature often displayed their stature by avoiding them as they would avoid other things that were common. Some persons today tell of strong admonishments from their mothers to stay away from the fair; not that the fair was particularly evil or dangerous, but it was just not a good place for nice people to be. Status consciousness is apparently not new.

As we said before, sulky racing was apparently the hands-down favorite feature of the fair for most people. Occasionally celebrities were brought in to open the races. One fellow remembers that Frank James, brother of the notorious Jesse, was the main attraction one year.

Gone today are the fragrances of the old fair, fragrances that incorporated the pungency of Coney Island hot dogs, the savoriness of onion-ladened hamburgers, and the sharp sweetness of cotton candy and taffy and cold lemonade.

Nobody much remembers anymore how much it cost to get in to the fair back then. Those still around who went were quite young then, and kids “snuck in free”, as anybody knows. It is said that there was a loose board on the North-East corner of the fairground where it was particularly convenient to crawl through.

Mel Heeter remembers that if you had 15 cents you were good for the day. The first thing he would do would be to exchange his nickel and his dime for 15 pennies. They felt better in his pocket and gave him the feeling of being close to rich. And those pennies were worth something then…like a long piece of Jessop’s taffy or a delicious cone of cotton candy. For five pennies he could buy a hot dog or a hamburger, or a glass of cold lemonade iced down at Strauss’s ice-barn…all to be had at one of those booths under the Amphitheatre, the place where paying customers watched (and bet on) the sulky races.

Of course, for young people the delight of the fair was the thrill of the Ferris Wheel, along with the joy of the merry-go-round.

And there were side-shows. There were fortune tellers, booths to win Kewpie dolls, games to make you part with your money quicker than a dog could gather fleas. There was one for men only! It is said that one or two girls would dress up like men each year in an attempt to get in, but as far as anyone knows it never worked. And the men never said much about what went on in there.

Memories record that the mid-way was essentially operated by Gypsies. Even the performers were Gypsies. Of course, the fortune teller had to be a Gypsy, for anyone knew that they were the best in the world at that activity. One named Madame X was particularly popular. Madame X made many friends in North Manchester and continued corresponding with them for years. But also Gypsies sometimes served as the strongman and the fat lady, and even the Siamese Twins often had the strange look that suggested that they might have Gypsy heritage in their background.

And speaking of Gypsies, while the fair was going on nearly everyone in town locked their doors, guarding against the thieving they expected from these strange persons. In those days people never thought much about thieving and most people couldn’t even find the key that would guard their doors from intruders. There were no intruders…except at fair time. And then the Gypsies were in town. Occasionally the town fathers would swear in an extra deputy, just for fair-time, to watch out for the Gypsies as well as for others.

The wild animal side-show was a definite thrill. The barker would shout out his invitation and when that didn’t seem to bring enough people to the tent, terrible sounds of animal stompings and roarings filled the air and the side of the tent would suddenly bulge out as evidence of a wild beast running loose inside. Curiosity seekers would eagerly trade the price of admission for the opportunity to witness the terrible scene. Inside there was the delightful display of an enormous hoax…men beating on the side of the tent and a record player spewing out the sounds of the jungle on a rampage. Naturally ashamed of themselves for having been taken-in, the departing patrons never let on to the waiting crowds that there was anything amiss going on.

And there were shooting galleries along the way that seemed to offer a certain attraction for young men. Hunting was a fairly prevalent sport in those days without so many restrictions and rules and most young men were pretty good at knocking down stationary objects and halting moving targets. Winning a stuffed animal was more of an ego trip than the acquisition of something of value. Probably some of the prizes could have been purchased for less cost than the fee required to fire the rifle. Nevertheless, the whole thing was important to the participants and anyone they were trying to impress.

Surely you could buy things at the fair that you just couldn’t get elsewhere, such as whips and novelties of all kinds, and what is now called “carnival glass”. The fact is, those things could be bought about anywhere you could find a general store, but on the midway they had an “exclusive” look to them, a look of importance, and a look of rarity. The Gypsies were very good at casting the spell that made all of that happen.

Fair-goers were bombarded with brilliant hues of reds and whites and blues, along with a wide assortment of other colors, as every booth sported a good old American flag, along with pennants of every imaginable shade. Bright signs announced the wares of the booths, adding to the visual enchantment. And there were the bright Fall colors of the new clothes the young people wore to the fair…not very appropriate dress for a fair, we might think, but propriety yielded to the greater need to show them off!

The Fair usually happened in the Fall, although newspaper records show that the event was scheduled anywhere from early July to late September. Most often it was in September, after the kids were back in school. Kids loved the fair because they were sprung from school for two days each year, just to go to the fair. Thursday was the free day for them, but that didn’t matter much since they rarely paid anyway.

In later years the fair officially started with a parade, beginning at the Covered Bridge extending all the way to the Fairgrounds. Director M.S. Fields led the North Manchester Band throughout the parade route, actively followed by people as interested to be seen in the parade as to attend the fair.

There were major spectaculars, including the big Wild West Show. Wild West shows featured horses and buffalo and real live Indians. Amazing feats of horse riding and round-up tricks dazzled the spectators. Nothing short of spectacular was the costume of one rider who wore a beaded vest with $20 gold pieces for buttons. Can you imagine how much those gold pieces would be worth today? One year the amazement level was enhanced with the presence of a diving elk which was encouraged (prodded) to leap from a dirt platform into a waiting pool of water. Actually the number of shows could barely keep pace with the newspaper hyperbole. There was the Mangean Troupe, “…the world’s greatest acrobats, from New York.” And there was Kerslake and his Pig Act, performing along with other “high class acts.” An advertisement for the 1923 fair announced, “The North Manchester Fair Association takes great pleasure in presenting this great program and asking your presence this week at the Fair Grounds, where there is plenty of good shade, water and music, and where you can spend the day with your friends. No better place on earth”!

The sounds of the fair included everything from jovial barkers inviting attention to their food stands or side-shows to the accomplished bands of North Manchester, Bippus, and Laketon. And of course there was laughter…

An interesting pitch-man by the name of Rube Wilkins brought more than comic relief to a long day of racing. Rube was from North Manchester and he traveled throughout the United States working fairs, but he was always at home for the North Manchester event. Rube is remembered as being a very clever fellow who was accomplished at playing his calliope and in bringing the merchants of the town together for advertising. He was usually dressed in preposterous brown, homespun overalls.

There was a very large facility called the Women’s Building where many displays were exhibited of primary interest to women but also of at least some interest to the men of the day. Fine quilts, flower arrangements, canned goods, and baked things would be on exhibit there. Before the days of 4-H domination of fairs, mind you, these handiworks were mostly prepared by adults. Some exhibitors traveled the circuit from fair to fair hoping to be rewarded by the prizes offered for such displays.

The two railroads that served North Manchester in those days, the Big Four and the Vandalia, ran special fair trains from Huntington and Wabash and Peru. On a single day as many as 10,000 people could be found at the fair.

People came to town also in those comparatively recent machines that carried people without horses. Louis Houlton tells of coming to the fair in 1914 and 1915 in the family Maxwell automobile, traveling all the way from Wabash on the good gravel road that related the two towns. Years later people would cruise back and forth on a paved highway in less than 30 minutes. Then it was an accomplishment to make the trip.

Although the real love affair with the car would come later, they were beginning to be around. The automobile tent was a popular attraction. Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Overlands, Hudsons, Dodges, Essexs and Olds all could be found there. They could even be purchased at the fair, although few ever were. Mostly they were for display and for dreaming by young people who saw them as the coming source of adventure.

There was even a steam boat available to bring a limited number of people a limited distance to see the fair in North Manchester. Called the May Eagle, the boat traveled along the Eel river from Liberty Mills to North Manchester. The boat was actually more novelty than a provider of transportation, but for the few years it floated it was a wonderful attraction.

One method of transportation which was still only a special attraction was the airplane, an open cockpit machine that was more a precocious toy than a reliable device. One year the flying machine crashed in the infield of the race track, badly mangling the pilot and frightening the spectators. The following year another airplane and probably another pilot was back to astound the people as the show had to go on.

The North Manchester Fair had come on the scene in the late 1880s, springing to life from a plot of ground sold to the Fair Association by a Mr. Shively…and forty years later it vanished. Dr. L. Z Bunker who well remembers the period believes that the factors that made the fair interesting…the relative isolation and simple life of small town folk and the agricultural economy…were rapidly changing at about that time, and enthusiasm for the fair changed too. The fair represented a simpler time when there was no radio or television and the telephone was just beginning to be used. Amazement was not too difficult to produce for isolated and inexperienced people. And as that isolation began to crack in the early 20s, some people began to take on an air of sophistication, possibly influenced by the avant-garde writers of the day, and the fair began be of less and less interest. People were traveling more in the growing number of automobiles which infected the countryside and other attractions became more interesting. Even movies had been a part of the experience for but a brief time and now they became more available and more interesting. By 1928 the week-long fair had been abbreviated to three days, with no livestock exhibits. Most of the fair’s third day that year was rained out, including the fire-works display. And that would be the final North Manchester Fair.

The fair’s closing was not the demise of entertainment in North Manchester, not by a long shot. Three other social-cultural events were going on during that period, and all of them continued after the fair had gone. Hamilton’s Opera House, probably owned by Sam Hamilton, was above the Jefferson livery stable. Shakespearian dramas and other serious works such as “The Last Days of Pompeii” and “Ben Hur” were performed there featuring traveling troupes of low paid actors, eager to make a name for themselves…or just to escape the mundane lives of everyone else they saw. Light fare was also offered such as romances, vaudeville and minstrel shows. A Chautauqua, the most popular cultural event of the day, came to town each year with such offerings as a lecture by Annie Dickie Oleson, the first woman to run for the United States Senate, entitled “What Does Europe Think Of Us?” or another by George Morse entitled “Wild Animals in Captivity.” And the third alternative was the Kiwanis Pig Club Show which was more popular then than it might be now. The Pig Club Show main feature was not so much the pigs as the other midway opportunities. It was a kind of precursor of the later street fairs which would delight small-town people in thousands of rural towns across the land. But it was the fair that held the excitement, the glamour and the wonder for the common man. Maybe it passed when the common man passed too.

In 1930 North Manchester’s genial benefactor, James Peabody, bought the land to pursue a dream…to establish a gracious home for older persons who wished to retire in elegant dignity. And the dream came true. Since the home opened for its first members in 1931 thousands of people have been blessed through his vision.

All the color and the excitement and the clamor of the fair is now gone forever…except that late at night, and only rarely then, if you are very quiet and you listen very hard, you may yet be treated to the cry of the barker shouting out:

                Pink Lemonade,
                made in the shade,
                by an old maid,
                stirred with a spade,
                Come and get it.
                Pink Lemonade!