A Trip Back in Time
An 1883 country fair in central New York state offers the great marvels of the age – including a chance to witness a remarkable glass ball shoot
On July 15th, 2002, Glass Works Auctions sold a rare and unusual target ball go-with. It brought $1,000 (not including the company's 12% buyer's premium.)
Lot No. 201 was an 8 ½" wide by 23 ½" high poster (shown below, right) touting the coming of a country fare in 1883. The poster mentions a target ball match, horseraces, balloon events ... wonderful things that must have amazed the folks in Canastota, N.Y., who were probably 20 years away from seeing their first auto, and 20 years away from even reading about the Wright Brothers' few-second flight on some unknown sanddune in a place called Kitty Hawk.
And what was even more amazing to me is that when I read of this poster in the Glass Works catalog, I remember having seen a larger version of this poster. In fact, I had written about it in my target ball newsletter. Here is that article.
By Ralph Finch
As part of a target ball exhibit at New Jersey's Wheaton Museum in 2001-02, there was a wonderful broadside belonging to Tom McCandless, also of New Jersey.
At several feet in depth, I am unable to reproduce the broadside in its entirety, but can offer a few snippets of the delightful prose that advertised a midweek fair so long, long ago ... Will we ever be so innocent again?
The Canastota fair was held Sept. 25-28, 1883, at a small central New York village (due east of Syracuse), and offered activities "interesting and instructive - others are novel and ludicrous, and all are interesting."
The "Grand Canastota Fair" was filled with "splendid music. See the great display of art, manufactures, floral, agriculture's products and stock of all kinds."
The masses reached the fair on foot, horseback, by buggy and, especially, by train. "The Utica, Ithaca & Elmira Railroad will carry passengers at reduced rates (two cents per mile) from all stations from Cortland to Canastota ..."
While the first day, Tuesday, was assigned to the exhibitors for setting up, the second day was music to the fairgoers’ ears. There were "Great Musical Concerts" during all hours of the fair, featuring the Canastota Cornet Band (I have their CD — a hot group) and races fast and slow to wow the crowd.
There was a half-mile dash foot race, with a prize of $5 to the winner, followed by a 200-yard ("and return") wheelbarrow race. The winner got $3, and all contestants had to supply their own wheelbarrow.
For something a bit unusual, the fair offered a "slow race," a one-mile non-dash. In this odd race you supplied your own horse, but had to ride someone else’s horse. And the person who came in last went home with the top prize of $7!
But now, the fairgoers could see something they most likely had never viewed before: The "Grand Balloon Ascension by the fascinating Lady Carlotta, under the management of Prof. Carl Myers."
And not only would Lady Carlotta go up, she would do it in style: "She will ascent in her new and attractive balloon Zephyr (now nearly completed) dressed in a manner pleasing to the ladies and fitting for the occasion."
Be still my heart.
On day three, Thursday, things are really starting to get exciting: We've got a serious horserace (with a purse of $100), and a three-minute horserace with $25 going to the winner. The Thursday highlight seems to be the Japanese Day Fireworks, a "costly display (that) requires the attendance and personal supervision of a skilled artist from Japan," the kind of show usually ordered by "the Mikado."
While I have no idea what "day fireworks" were, I can imagine even less the "Menagarie (sic) in Mid Air," which consisted of "a carivan(sic) of curious animals of enormous sizes floating in mid air, over the assembled multitude." (Try not to sit under the horses.)
Next came the "Comic Balloon Ascension," which featured Chinese balloons 20-feet in diameter: "These remarkable air ships are the first of the kind ever exhibited in this country. They assume grotesque forms in the air, the effects being pleasing and most curious to behold."
"A Shower from Japan" was a large mortar shell fired 1,000 feet up, and when it exploded it dropped "100 rare and beautiful curiosities" on the assemblage below as "souvenirs of the Great Canastota Fair."
On the fourth day, Friday, things really got exciting, especially when Prof. Rulison, the aerial gymnast, ascended another balloon and, dressed in tights, performed "the most wonderful and blood curdling feats a mile above the earth ... on a slender trapeze attached to the balloon, hanging to it by his toes."
But more down-to-earth with the final big attraction, and the one which warrants this report in this book: "GLASS BALL MATCH," the broadside proclaimed in bold letters.
Yes, a ball match between "Geo. C. Luther of Syracuse and John E. Graham of Canastota, of 100 balls from Card's revolving trap, 18 yards rise. Mr. Luther has challenged both Dr. Carver and Bogardus. Mr. Graham is the Great Expert Rifle Shot of the world. After the match each will give exhibitions in fancy shooting with shot and ball, such as has never been witnessed in this part of the state.
"This is a rare opportunity for lovers of the gun to see these renowned shots and their exhibitions, which are very entertaining for those who never saw anything of the kind. It is exciting and worthy of the applause it invariably received."
"They will give the following exhibition shots and many other equally difficult feats..." George Luther, the program boasted, would shoot at glass balls "the American way of holding gun," followed by the English way, the double way, "holding gun with one hand; with back to trap; pulling own trap;" and "breaking 25 balls in two minutes."
John Graham, "with rifle," was a little more athletic. Graham, the broadside promised, would shoot glass balls "with gun upside down on top of shooter's head; laying on his back on stool; back to trap; gun between legs; with back to ball with mirror; swinging; 20 out of 25; shooting 3 balls in the air at one time, breaking one with ball, two with shot."
How wonderful this fair must have been to those lucky enough to be able to take a few days off midweek and attend this alien event. What did all that look like, and sound like, and smell like on that late summer day? How were the fairgoers dressed, where were the horse-and-buggies tied up, what wonderful foods were offered for sale?
Today, we can only imagine, but what a marvelous and unworldly experience it must have been for the fairgoers of all ages to see a man in tights hanging by his toes in the sky, fireworks fit for the Mikado going off at midday, and the Fascinating Lady Carlotta, "dressed in a manner pleasing to the ladies" — and the men, too, I'd bet — ascending the great balloon Zephyr.
They must have talked about this fair around the old cracker barrel or while slopping the pigs for years to come.
And one final note for target ball nuts: Even in a rural community such as Canastota, the reputation of the great Capt. A.H. Bogardus was so well-known that he need only be referred to by one name: Bogardus, as — a few decades later did Houdini and, more decades later, Cher ...
I'm starting to meander. When I work Cher into a target ball story, I think it's time to quit ...