This weekend Paducah celebrates the Lowertown Arts and Music Festival, one of the many great festivals held in our fair city every year. But the festival atmosphere is certainly nothing new to Paducahans, and in fact, during this week in Paducah history, May 14-18, 1901, the town was in the midst of a massive carnival sponsored by the Elks Club. Held in the Downtown/Lowertown area with the main attractions showcased on a lot at Ninth and Broadway, the carnival brought festival-goers from as far away as Evansville, Louisville, and St. Louis. According to the May 16, 1901 issue of the Paducah Sun, “The crowd in the city today is estimated to be the largest ever here at one time before in the history of Paducah,” which proved later to be about 12,000 people on that one day alone.
1901 wasn’t the first year for the Elks carnival. It had been started two years prior in 1899, but for those first two years the carnival was a relatively small affair, a local fundraiser, if you will. Even the early accounts for the 1901 carnival didn’t tout the event as being quite so spectacular. A major attraction, as reported in a February 1901 edition of The Sun, was to be the inclusion of a nursery for children… “where people may leave their children in the care of good, responsible nurses and have them checked like a trunk at the depot or an overcoat at the hotel.”
Something happened in the interim months, however; the size of the carnival grew, expanding from a weekend to a full five days. Midway performers were brought in from out of town. The event was advertised far and wide, up and down the rivers. The carnival grew such that it essentially took over the entire city, to the point that Mayor Lang handed over the city to the Elks on opening day, formally putting the Elks in charge of the city for the duration of the event.
Said Elks’s Director General Lagomarsino to a crowd of thousands upon receiving the key to the city – “Ladies and Gentlemen—In these days of mad racing for wealth, when we live two days in one day, and the duties of two weeks are crowded into one, it becomes a necessity to devise some means which will relax the tightly strung nerves and give rest to the over-taxed brain. A means by which this end may be attained should be hailed with delight by the whole people and the projectors thereof should have their comfort and support in their arduous labors. Such we claim this carnival to be.”
The townspeople took this mandate to heart. With the fair beginning at 1:30 pm each afternoon of that week, the vast majority of merchants and banks in town agreed to close shop by early afternoon so their employees could attend. The post office shut down. Children were let out of school early.
The scope and variety of the attractions at the 1901 Elks Carnival were second to none, and likely novelties to many of the festival-goers of the early 20th century. We don’t have a complete list of Midway performers and attractions, but we know of a few…
*a wild animal menagerie
*a German Village which featured musical and comedy acts, as well as beer and sausages
*the Ladies Auxiliary “fish pond” from which prizes could be drawn
*the Streets of India tent which featured acrobatics and “oriental” dancing girls
*the famous Backman Glass Blowing demonstration with a working glass steam engine as well as glass dresses, neck ties, and pin cushions
*a Flower Parade, not unlike the Rose Bowl Parade in concept, during which the crowd threw so much confetti that it stood ankle-deep in the streets. As reported, “Every body caught throwing flour, rice, or anything other than confetti will be arrested by order of Director Lagomarsino.”
*the Thompson High Divers, a husband and wife team. “The man dives one hundred feet and his wife about half that far. They are paid five hundred dollars a week for this feature.”
*Madame Roltare, a palm reader out of Chicago. The paper praised her as a “highly educated young woman” who “deserves the popularity that she is winning.”
*Joe Grimes, “the fat boy,” who tipped the scales at 740 pounds. Mr. Grimes made his living with his girth and had actually been to Paducah before, helping advertise a bicycle firm.
Of course, no major event is without its mishaps. One of the performers from the “Streets of India,” a Mr. Jeff Presley of Knoxville, tried to jump a fence at Ninth and Broadway and landed on the iron fence at Grace Episcopal, striking one of the pickets through his foot. In trying to dislodge himself, Mr. Presley succeeded in piercing the other foot as well. The paper reported he was in “very bad condition.”
Also, one of the hyenas from the Midway menagerie managed to escape its cage at two ‘o clock in the morning and wandered over to the “Streets of India” tent, finding its way into the sleeping quarters where the “Turks” were at rest. The sniffing beast woke one of the performers who promptly rolled himself into his blanket, figuring the hungry creature wouldn’t want to eat the blanket as well. He was right. The beast was ultimately lassoed and returned to its cage without further incident.
All told, the Elks fair of 1901 brought in 80,000 paid admissions—a staggering figure for the time. After expenses, the Elks profited $6000, approximately $150,000 in today’s money. The carnival proved to be so popular that it ran for many more years after 1901, getting a little bigger and better each time.
To learn more about menageries, mishaps, and Midways, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.