Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Don B Snyder: Part 2 – Athletic Show in the Great Depression

Climbing My Family Tree: Don B. Snyder
Don B Snyder

This is Part 2  of a 13-part blog series sharing my Grand-uncle Don’s life story, in his own words, via an autobiography sent to me by Don’s grandson, Ron Oldfield, after Ron stumbled across one of my prior posts about his grandfather. It is shared with the permission of both of Don’s children and Ron Oldfield. [Note – Anything in brackets with green type is my added explanation of something in Don’s text.]

Don’s story:

Part 2 – Athletic Show

Climbing My Family Tree: Athletic Show Boxing Poster
Athletic Show Boxing Poster (in public domain)
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          On the athletic show we traveled with a truck and a car. The Greek that owned the show had a wife and a young daughter that traveled with him. We had a tent with the ring inside. Our dressing room was a canvass in one corner. The Greek was 52 years old and he would wrestle anyone in the crowd. He was short and stocky, but he knew wrestling. He had once trained Joe Savoldy, a heavyweight world champion when wrestling was real. Next was ‘Speedy’ Martin, about six feet tall and about 180-190 pounds. The ‘boxers’ (I prefer the word ‘fighter’) were Paul Reese, about 145-150 pounds, and I, at 135 pounds. Paul would take on anyone. I’d take on anyone up to 150 pounds, with no scales. To familiarize it, we had the tent, ring, and ‘bally’ stand. This stand was in front of the tent on the midway. It was about three feet by 12 feet and stood about three feet high. When it was show time we would get on the bally stand. [The bally stand is a platform in front of a fair or carnival sideshow tent on which sample of the show may be performed in order to lure spectators inside.] 

          The Greek was a master showman. We would hit a brake drum with an iron bar that you could hear all over the midway and the people would all come to see what was happening. I remember a girlie (dancing) show across from us. They drew a lot of people but not as many as we did. One time there was not too many people around. He got on the bally stand in his tights. Seen about four or five girls coming. He raised his arm limp, shoulder high and looked at it, pretending he had muscle. They stopped, looked and laughed and said “you haven’t got any muscle.” He would look serious and pretend to show that he did. First thing you know people would stop to see what was going on. The more they stopped the bigger the crowd. Then we would get on the bally stand with him and challenge the crowd. Sometimes we couldn’t get anyone to come up. Then he would apply some heat, get them a little mad and finally someone would come up and we would start. It cost those who came in to see it 10 cents. They would have to stand and of course the ring was about three or four feet high. If nobody came up he would try some more heat. He might look at a young couple and say, “what’s the matter, are you afraid?” They might be, but in front of their girlfriends they would often come up. I think when the people saw they didn’t hurt bad, others would get on the bally stand. You had to remember not to apply too much heat, like saying they were yellow or farmers. These shows were at county fairs, homecomings, etc., so you had to be careful. I’ve heard more than once that the crowd got mad and tore the tent down. These smaller towns usually didn’t have any boxers or wrestlers, maybe one. They didn’t want to get shown up so often fighters would come around when people were not there. They would hint or come right out and say that they wanted to work. By that I mean take it easy, pull your punches and make it look good. If he would draw or maybe even maybe win, he’d be popular and later could tell his grandkids. It saved us a lot as we might have to fight two to six times a day. Sometimes in the dressing room I’d ask him, “Do you want to work or shoot?” If I thought he was a nice guy I’d explain it to him. If not a nice guy I’d say never mind and go in and fight. Once in Napolean, Ohio a kid seemed nice so I explained it to him. He said yes. I left openings and WHAM! I got a hard one. I thought it was a mistake, but he did it again so I let him have a few. I went to the dressing room and he was in there crying. I felt bad and said “you tried to take me.” He said “no.” I felt bad and said “let’s do it again and do it right.” He said “O.K.” and we did it twice more. He was happy and the people liked it. When I told him he tried to take me, he said “no.” I told him “don’t try to kid me buddy, I do this every day and I know.” Anyways, it came out all right.

Climbing My Family Tree: Midway Boxing Bally Stand (England, off copyright)
Midway Boxing Bally Stand (England, off copyright)
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          Sometimes things happened that were really funny. One time we were at a town that had a good heavyweight wrestler. He came and ‘worked’ with Speedy Martin. His name was ‘Killer Briner’. Speedy thought that he was working too stiff (rough). The Killer would just laugh. One day the crowd had thinned down so the Greek, being the showman he was, said, “I’ll put both boxers along with Speedy against the Killer.” The crowd piled in. I heard Speedy tell Paul “now is the time we can get him.” I wanted no part of that, as I liked him. They started and Speedy got a half-Nelson on him with his head sticking out. Paul took aim, and WHAM hit him hard on the nose. I saw a little blood come out. He let out a roar like a wounded bull. Paul got out of the ring fast. I couldn’t as he had a hold of Speedy and his big legs around my neck and quivering. I couldn’t breathe. I think he saw that and felt I was not in on it and let me loose. I didn’t waste any time getting out of the ring. Then he worked Speedy over. Speedy got a good lesson and the crowd got their money’s worth.

          One other thing was funny. The Greek’s wife took in the money. Paul told me to watch her counting the money for the days take. He said occasionally she would raise her dress and shove some bills in her pocket and to let her notice I was watching and it would pay off. I did watch her and sure enough, she did that and saw me looking. I noticed a few extra dollars in my pay then.  

          At that time some men worked for a dollar a day. Trouble was we had to eat out and that took most of our money. After fighting, we would take a bucket bath in our dressing room. Then we would gather in the front of the ring and shoot the breeze with each other or with fighters or wrestlers from the area. At the Bucyrus, Ohio, fair Speedy had kinfolk from nearby Galion, Ohio. They brought hogs to the fair. Usually, we would crawl under the ring, drag out our blankets and sleep in the ring that we had fought in that day. Believe you me, it was a pretty rough life. Especially as I was only seventeen. Back to Speedy. He wanted me to go the barn where his kinfolk had their hogs. I said O.K. and when it came to sleeping we laid on the top of a bunch of straw about 10 or 15 feet high. Did I say sleep? Hardly. Them darn hogs squealed and snorted all night. Then in the morning, I was embarrassed as the farmers came in early to see the hogs. And there we were in our underclothes and I thought “boy! Never again.” But how many people can say they slept with the hogs, yeah! And who would want to?

Climbing My Family Tree: Sleeping pigs (
Sleeping pigs (
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          I hurt my leg hitting a sharp tent stake. With all the fighting it became badly infected and I left for home. It looked almost like gangrene had set in. Mom would put a tobacco poultice on it in the daytime as it was strong and would burn the flesh. At night she would put on a poultis (these were wet) of bread and milk. Well, that’s one old-fashioned remedy that done the trick and it healed good. [How to make a milk and bread poultice, HERE] I might add sometimes I’d step barefooted on a nail sticking up. This old remedy always did the trick.

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