Down Memory Lane: Warrenton Firemen’s Carnivals

By Joe Austin

Growing up in the small town that Warrenton was in the 1940s and ‘50s, where many still had a vegetable garden in their backyard or raised chickens, entertainment was hard to come by. There was no TV; the most excitement a young boy could expect was watching the train coming in to the nearby rail yard station. Therefore, such events as a springtime parade and carnival after a cold and dreary house-confining winter became rather significant to us kids, as well as to the adults, and created many fond memories of our Warrenton childhoods.

In 1930, the first Firemen’s Carnival was held in Warrenton. These carnivals were a significant source of income for the fire department, and continued as such for the next 60 years or so. But as the town grew, the old ways faded, and carnival revenue has since been replaced by a combination of public funding, private donations, and commercial income. Firemen’s carnivals were not unique to Warrenton, since most of the towns in this area had volunteer fire companies and held carnivals of their own. A very few still remain nearby. In Warrenton, the carnival was a two-day event, mainly in the evenings at the end of the workday, but in later years, when the kid rides were added, there was a scaled-down version on Saturday afternoon just for the mothers and kids.

The Carnival Parade

The carnival’s parades always kicked off the celebrations and were held on the first day, Friday, with the intent of drawing the spectators to the carnival grounds. The parades were similar to others still held today, other than the fact that the floats were a little more home-spun and some were being pulled by horses. This being horse country, there was no shortage of riders on horseback, either a contingent from one of the local hunt clubs or a ‘cowboy’ dressed in an outfit reminiscent of Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. There were always a few high school bands in the lineup, and most of the floats were simple, many being your average flatbed farm wagons decorated with yards of colored crepe paper and sponsored by a local business. A regular parade participant was Smokey the Bear. The local state forest ranger would put on the bear costume and hat, as depicted on the fire prevention posters, and wave to the crowd from a fire truck or on a float depicting a fire-ravaged forest scene, grabbing the crowd’s attention by throwing candy to the kids.

Fortunately for us kids, a lot of the floats had the people on them throwing candy to the crowds, so we were constantly scrambling to pick up as much as we could before the teenagers and grownups beat us to all the sweet stuff. Since we were smaller, we had better luck because we could scoot between all the legs of the people in the crowd. As a boy, I loved it when the fire trucks let off their sirens as they were passing, whereas my little sister Dru always had to cover her ears.

The carnival parade, like all the town parades, would start at the firehouse on Main Street in the center of town, between Rhodes Drug Store and the Presbyterian Church. Positions for each participant – float, band, fire truck, etc. – would be indicated back along Main Street and the side streets by numbers painted on the blacktop. The parade route, densely populated with townsfolk on both sides, went down Main Street onto Waterloo Street until it reached the carnival grounds at a vacant lot on Chestnut Street across from the graveyard- amazingly, that lot is still mostly vacant today. As the town and carnival grew through the years, its location was changed to the horse show grounds on Shirley Avenue at the end of Green Street.

The Carnival

The rides – swings, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, kiddy rides – were provided and run by a crew that traveled around from carnival to carnival. Only in our later years, when we were parents ourselves, did we ever wonder about the safety aspects about these rides, hastily-assembled by itinerant roustabouts. But at the time, the rides were a thrill for those of us who could be called young. For parents, a lot of enjoyment came from seeing their kids having such a good time.

In addition to the rides, the food and game booths served to entertain townspeople at the carnival. The carnival crew provided a few money-making game booths of their own, such as throwing baseballs or beanbags to knock off heavy bottles. But most of the booths, particularly those selling food and drink, were set up and run by volunteer town folks and clubs such as the Lions and Rotary clubs, as well as the volunteer firemen themselves. By the time I was a teenager, my dad, Jim Austin, was a member of the Lions Club and I was able to help him do booth duty at one of the carnivals. It was great fun being behind the counter, selling hamburgers and Pepsi Cola to customers. Once, they even let me flip hamburgers at the grill.

The local, now long-gone, Pepsi Cola bottling plant would sponsor a booth that was a favorite of the young men with their girls, where they had a chance of winning a prize for their date. The ring toss consisted of a large array of empty glass soda bottles (Pepsi Cola of course) in their regular wooden carry-crates in the center, enclosed by a surrounding table from which one could throw wooden rings that were just large enough to go over the neck of a bottle. It was really quite a challenge, readily accepted by the young men. It made a lot of money for the fire department, and by the end of each evening there were quite a few happy young girls to be seen in the crowd, carrying a large stuffed animal and accompanied by a smiling young man.

One of the small kid favorites was the grab-bag, where for five cents or a dime we could reach into a feed sack and grab a small paper bag containing some little trinket. There was always a car dealer or two, such as Tom Frost, who always had the latest model there to show off and to try to sell. And for those a bit older, the favorite game was Bingo. With the fields around town covered in corn crops, it was not surprising to find that kernels of corn ware used by participants to mark each square.

The Legacy

Over the years, several high school students became members of Warrenton’s volunteer fire department. One of our classmates, David Haley, was one such active apprentice volunteer fireman during high school. The significance of his role became apparent during a teenage party in town one evening when we heard the fire alarm on the top of the fire station in the center of town go off, whereupon Dave immediately left the party to help put out the fire. When the rest of us party-goers found out where fire was – in a warehouse at the nearby railroad depot – we all piled into our cars and went over to see it. We had a good view of the spectacular action while we kept our distance on nearby Green Street and were quite impressed to see our classmate in action.

With this firefighting experience under his belt, David joined the Navy after high school and became a shipboard fireman, continuing to learn his trade and then utilize it during the Vietnam War. He made firefighting a career, working as a full-time fireman in a fire company near D.C. where he raised his family. David has left us now, but we all still thankful to him for his service on two fronts: both to his country and to his community.

Joe Austin is a freelance writer who grew up in Warrenton, WHS class of ’59.  He writes about family history, travel, and is the author of Pixels in the Clouds, a collection of photos of teenage parties in the 1950s.  He resides with his wife and a few grandchildren in Massachusetts.

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  1. Joe, enjoyed your article regarding carnivals. Brought back lots of memories including getting stuck on top of the ferris wheel. Never will get over that and have never been on one again Those were truly the best years. .

    • Thanks, Barbara. You might also want to check out similar articles in the Fem 2015 and Oct 2016 issues. A lot more memories there.

  2. Great article! Brings back great memories going to the carnivals and parades during the summers of visiting my cousins (you) and sisters from Norfolk!

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