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Small Town Circus

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When I was growing up in southern Minnesota, the circus still came to town regularly each August to set up in field at the edge of town. It was one of the summer's great events, but until I read Lou Gamage's account of the circus in Monmouth, I was not aware of how important that circus was in helping to maintain the social order of small prairie towns.

Lou points out that the arrival of the circus at the railroad depot immediately divided the town boys into three classes: those boys whose parents could afford to given them 25 cents and send them off to the circus tent to buy their own tickets, those boys big enough and strong enough to help set up the circus tent, and earn their own tickets, and those boys who were both too small and too poor to attend the circus at all.

Don't assume the rich boys had all the advantages. For the boys who earned their admission, there was the immense satisfaction of having earned their right to be there. There was even something to be said for being a small and poor boy. Lou was one of these. Lou remembers his father, and the fathers of other small boys as well, taking their sons down to the train siding to watch the circus unload. Sitting on their fathers' shoulders, the boys could see the elephants climb down from the cars to help unload the canvas tents and poles. There were the cages filled with tigers and bears, and the beautiful white horses. Then came the circus wagons, and dozens of roustabouts and performers, all parading from the train to the field where the circus was to be held. It was almost as good as the circus itself, and it was a shared memory of father and son the boys never forgot.

And then there's this: even if there was a small gulf between the rich boys and the poor ones, that difference grew insignificant when compared to the gulf between small towns like Monmouth, with its prim and proper town square, and the glorious sequined world inside the three rings in the tent—a world where the ringmaster dressed in red, yellow and green suits, where graceful girls flew through the air from high swings, and the lion tamer was fearless inside the cages.

After the circus packed up and left town, all the boys—the rich, the hard workers, and the small and poor—realized that the counters of the five and ten cent store would never again seem quite so magical.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.