Arlene at the fair: 4-H projects, iron lung, runaway pony and the freak show

 

Delicious-looking baked goods (and sewing items in the background) at the 1906 La Porte County Fair, way before Arlene’s time. (Photo courtesy of La Porte County Historical Society Museum)

WNLP editor’s note: Here’s another delightful chapter from the memoirs of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall. Arlene, who now lives in Del Mar, Calif., grew up in La Porte. WNLP readers’ many responses to her memoirs have added more sweet stories of our hometown.Arlene graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities; she also studied in various European countries. Look forward to more of her memoirs soon on WNLP. 

Most of my summer trips were not by car, but on my bike to La Porte High School for 4-H activities. The four “H’s” were our heads, hearts, hands and health that we pledged for noble causes, including country. Being the center of a farming area, La Porte and the surrounding country villages were loaded with 4-H clubs. 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

For the farm boys, raising cattle for prizes at the La Porte County Fair was a goal, but we girls in the city center had homemaking lessons in several disciplines for as long as five years if we liked. I won some prizes in sewing, food preparation, flower arranging and baking.

The home economics area of the high school was nearly a daily destination for instruction in a large kitchen and in a sewing room full of machines. I used to leave home with my bicycle basket full of ingredients for the day’s baking project. Baking powder, eggs, sugar, flour and milk were carefully loaded to prevent eggs’ cracking on the way. That was never the problem; it was a cake breaking apart on the way home. The classes were fun and led to our choosing things to display for prizes at the fair. And we received a free pass to the fair to visit our exhibits, at first to see if they had won any ribbons. 

The fairgrounds extended from Fifth to Tenth streets (the city limit) and from F Street to  probably I or J (roughly the current site of La Porte High School). Since my Grandmother Miller lived on the corner of Fifth and F, biking to her house was always the first step of my annual August adventure. The fairgrounds’ main entrance was just a few steps from her front door. 

Once inside the gate, I  heard loud, deep breathing. Each year, in the same place, the same sound and scene: a patient’s head extended from a white, round body tube – an iron lung. Someone in white collected donations for the patient with tuberculosis.  

Close to the iron lung, energetic hawkers mesmerized large crowds with their claims of magical cures for just about any ailment by using their quack medicine. My father, a healthy man, always fell prey to some magic voodoo solution. 

An 1893 shot (again, way before Arlene’s time) of the La Porte County Fair main gate on H Street (current site of La Porte High School). The sign at left advertises a baseball game featuring the Nebraska Indians.

Walking further into the grounds, one came to a large exhibit hall for our domestic 4-H exhibits and to the north of it, mostly pigs and cows filled a barn or two. We young girls didn’t give a hang about the animals, but there we met cute farm boys who didn’t go to our school. 

Large tents with tables waited just far enough away from the animals for women from various church circles in town to set up home-cooked meals. I never ate there or bought any other food at the fair except my favorite cotton candy.  

First along the Midway, a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round introduced the carnival offerings. Next came a ride or two to scare the living daylights out of us. Little planes for two swayed sideways as they climbed and descended next to the roller coaster. 

I’ll  never forget the ring inside which little ones could have a pony ride. On my first ride, the pony jumped over the low fence and ran off down the Midway with me screaming as loud as the iron lung. To this day I fear horses, though I can admire the thoroughbreds who run at the track in my town. 

The remainder of carnival offerings featured no more than two girlie shows and a fun house of spooks. Observers waited to watch the skirts  of women being blown up as they exited. 

My favorite attraction, where I always felt I got my money’s worth, was the freak show. Immense cloth banners lined the midway on both sides of the presentation stage. Each banner pictured one of the freaks to be seen inside, though we had a preview outside. There stood the monkey woman, whose entire body was covered with black hair, 

including a beard. The snake man had the skin of a reptile. Someone else showed double rows of teeth. Inside would be Siamese twins, joined and displayed within a bottle of formaldehyde. I’d never seen pygmies before, but there they were! I can’t recall if some of the freaks changed from year to year, but every year I paid my money to see  the old ones again. 

Now, so many years later, I look with pity upon those people with  deformities which could not be corrected, probably due to the cost. They would earn  bare subsistence being paraded as “freaks” before audiences who wouldn’t see them as human beings with feelings. With extreme guilt for my youthful fascination with such  abnormalities, I can understand my boys’ love of “junky cars.” 

At the far end of the midway stood the grandstand, where my grandmother loved to watch harness racing. I never went there with her, for I wasn’t much for sports. I never understood why she listened to every Chicago Cubs game on the radio and was overjoyed when her son Julius took her to real games in the big city!  

Certainly the county fair was the highlight of the summer, much bigger than the La Porte Fourth of July Parade at that time, where a few decorated cars of local politicians and a couple of ersatz floats preceded an hour of farmers showing off their latest equipment. Of course, everyone still had to attend.

6 Responses to “Arlene at the fair: 4-H projects, iron lung, runaway pony and the freak show”

  1. Mike K

    Apr 22. 2021

    Enjoying these trips back in time! Thank you, Arlene, for sharing so generously!

    Reply to this comment
  2. G.Gotto

    Apr 22. 2021

    Thanks for very enjoyable read
    Please keep them coming

    Reply to this comment
    • Carla J Antos

      Apr 26. 2021

      Thank you so much for sharing your memories. I remember going to harness racing with my mom. This was a favorite of hers & a great place to visit with family & friends. Keep those memories coming. ❤️

      Reply to this comment
  3. Sam

    Apr 22. 2021

    Love your stories from the past. You are a superb storyteller. Please keep them coming. I so look forward to them. Thank you for sharing ❤️

    Reply to this comment
  4. Sam ligjthall

    Apr 26. 2021

    m, I obviously know most of your life and lif’s stories..werre close that way. but it’s always a.thrill to learn what turned you on before me. it really gives me some insight as to who.i am, what motivates me and how alike we truly are. I’m glad applels don’t fall so.far from the ahlhrm trees! I love you!

    Reply to this comment
  5. Matthew C.

    May 10. 2021

    Wow, it’s interesting that they would have a tuberculosis (https://www.premiermedicalhv.com/divisions/services/tuberculosis/) patient on display. Would that have been common at fairs? I might look into this trend for a research project.

    Reply to this comment

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