This first appeared 0n April 27, 2010
Update, 5/15/11: a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, researching Foley & Burk for historical information to be included in a publication and exhibition at this summer's Sonoma County Fair, celebrating the fair's 75th anniversary, contacted me for permission to quote my F&B recollections ("There's an old ice house ..."). I am delighted to be a contributor. Those carnival unloadings and the trek of the wagons to the fairgrounds are among my happiest boyhood memories of growing up in Santa Rosa. Thank you, Wade.
We all, each armed with memories, walk down old rail tracks, looking for an ice house, a silo, a barn, where once gilded circus trains unloaded, hoping to bring back those magical days, hoping to recapture exactly how we felt then ...
For Wade Burck, it's a place in Florida south of Sarasota: "You had to have walked into the building in Venice, with GGW in rehearsal, and Charlie and Axel in tents in the back lot, reserved parking in front for Irvin Feld, Kenneth Feld, Allen Bloom, etc., some of the greatest stars of their era eating in the restaurant, to really appreciate the wonder of that old building and facilities."
Burck, like another veteran Ringling pro, Jack Ryan, shares Tito Gaona's precarious dream of turning the place into a circus museum. And I am reminded of my own favored places that wither away as time moves on.
There's an old ice house -- no, there was an old ice house down Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa, on whose raised exterior walkway I once stood on enchanted summer days when a carnival train rattled into town and was spotted there. I watched transfixed as a wide array of multi-colored wagons of Foley & Burk Shows rumbled and clattered from flat car to flat car, muscled hands tugging at their tongues, pulling against ropes to guide them onto the runs, down which they bolted with wild force, hitting the pavement for sure, jerking this way or that, getting hooked to tractors and pulled out to the fairgrounds ... Sometimes on my bicycle, I anxiously followed them.
And there's a spot out in Point Richmond; a few years ago, I walked it, finding an old shack still standing, and still seeing vividly in my reaching mind the side show tent that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had pitched in front of it over fifty years ago when it threw up a glorious one day date under the big top in late August. Most magical day of my life. Now, that sacred place is covered in smooth sterile asphalt and loading ramps for container trucks.
So many old ice houses gone. So many old tracks and fences and buildings rusted and ignored, waiting maybe for new trains to find them ... On visits over the years to the railroad crossing where the carnival unloaded, I've watched a special setting, bit by bit wither away. First, the ice dispensing machine. Then the elevated walkway along the building. Then the building, down to a shell, and finally -- gone. Now only the railroad tracks remain. Abandoned.
So I can understand Wade Burck's poignant memories, can understand how a building in Venice that I found rather plain, even ugly, can mean so much to somebody else ...
"Not only the greats from the true 'golden era', but the whole city of Venice was electric with pride and anticipation," shares Burck, "waiting for the opening night dress rehearsal, and the animal walk to the train, as the Greatest Show on Earth, 'their' Greatest Show on Earth, left for another tour ... The permanent chain link arena, with the sloped concrete floor, which sat behind the octagon ring stock training barn, in which the likes of Bottcher, Chipperfield, Bauman, Williams practiced, in which I had the honor of practicing ..."
How I wish I still owned that Schwin bike and could ride it out Sebastopol Road to watch the colorful Foley & Burk train pull in alongside the ice house ...