Remembering “The Spring Mill Fire Company Fair”
Conshohocken’s Greatest Carnival, Ever, EVER
By Jack Coll
Summertime Carnivals and Fairs in Conshohocken date back before the turn of last century. When it comes to community celebrations no community, and I mean NO-COMMUNITY, in the state of Pennsylvania can claim that they had more Carnivals, Fairs, Parades and Celebrations in their community than Conshohocken.
We’ve celebrated the dedication of buildings with parades and party’s in the 1800’s, we’re talking about parades on horseback that not only went up AND down Fayette Street but would parade through the Avenues and Streets as well.
Going back a hundred years to the fall of 1921 when the first concrete bridge was dedicated by Conshohocken and West Conshohocken there was an elaborate celebration in both Boroughs.
Think about it! We’ve celebrated the implosion of the Matsonford Bridge back in 1985, we had a massive celebration when we dedicated the opening of the bridge in the fall of 1987.
We celebrated when our young soldiers went off to war in 1917, and again in 1941 when Battery “C” marched down Fayette Street to the train station in front of the entire town. Factories closed, all four schools closed and more than two thousand children stood on the Fayette Street curb cheering.
We celebrated when World War One ended when multiple huge parades were staged to welcome back our young veterans and the scene was repeated following World War Two when Fayette Street was closed down so Sam DeMarco could throw a celebration like none ever seen before in this borough.
Celebrations in the borough in recent years have included Fireworks, (that go back nearly a century,) the Conshohocken Car Show founded in 2002 by then Mayor Robert Frost, The Conshohocken Fun-Fest, founded in the early 1990’s by a committee led by Jim Flanagan, Chuck Hempsher Sr., Vince Flocco, Ray Weinman and a wonderful cast of residents and businessmen and women. Residents might remember the Sesquicentennial Celebration held back in 2000 to celebrate the borough’s 150th anniversary of incorporation while older residents might remember attending the borough’s Centennial Celebration in 1950.
Going back before 1900 the Washington Fire Company was the king of block parties, parades and community fairs. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s the Washington Fire Company block parties were legendary, during the course of the summer the Washies would shut down West Hector Street every Friday and Saturday night through the summer.
I often talked to a couple of old friends of mine including Allen Worth and John “Chick” McCarter about the legendary 1920’s and 1930’s block parties, these guys were there. The music was often supplied by a band called “The Washies Sirens” and included Bill Magee, Henry Sauter, Mike Nally, Ed Cavanaugh, Chris Baily, Walt Pope and lead singer Chick McCarter who sang through a megaphone.
Both Allen and Chick told me the parties often went into the wee-hours of the morning. This was when trolley cars ran the length of Fayette Street and more than 200 family-owned retail shops filled the lower end of the borough.
Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s Washies would hold an annual block party, the outdoor event was always held on West Hector Street in front of the firehouse. It was called the “12 night event,” held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for four consecutive weeks from mid-July to mid-August. Booths and stands were erected in the street between Fayette Street and Forrest Street, for the sale of soft drinks, ice cream, popcorn, sandwiches and articles of merchandise. From Forrest Street to Oak Street they would set up pony rides, a fish pond, and other amusements for children. They would also raffle and give away prizes that would include such items as five piece dinner sets, Maytag Washers, Westinghouse automatic toasters, a 52-piece Rogers Silver Set, a boys and girls bicycle, an RCA 54 R. P. M. record player, a porch glider, chase lounge, a table and lamp among other things through the years.
In more recent years, (the 1960’s-1980’s) the Washington Fire Company led by Sam Januzelli were some-what famous for holding block parties, at times Sam would announce Friday morning that a block party complete with kiddie rides would take place that evening. For the Washies the Block Parties out in front of the firehouse was common place back then.
Over a period of 50 years dating back to the 1880’s through the 1930’s huge parades were enjoyed by all every time a community service organization dedicated their newly constructed headquarters such as the Knights of Columbus, the Odd Fellows, the Patriotic Order Sons of America the Penn Club and many others. Many of these organizations held summertime carnivals as a way to raise funds.
Few might remember the annual “Kiddie Karnival” sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. The week-long event held during the 1950’s was held at different locations like the one in 1956 held on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Fayette Street, adjacent to the Acme Supermarket.
And then came the Spring Mill Fire Company’s annual fair, let’s say up-front that the Spring Mill Fire Company never took a back seat or played second fiddle to any fire company in Montgomery County. From the moment they were incorporated more than 97 years ago in 1923 to the present the fire company recruited top-notch fire personnel, held first class banquets and for those of us who can remember, Spring Mill Fire Company without a doubt held Conshohocken and vicinity’s best fairs ever.
Before the fire company incorporated they held their first fundraiser which was a carnival. In the fall of 1923 a dozen or so residents showed up at Prizer’s Hotel, (Bar) on the far end of Hector Street to discuss the formation of a volunteer fire company.
I’ve often thought about these guys who came up with the idea of starting a fire company, I mean all of our fire companies throughout Montgomery County were founded as volunteer fire companies. I envisioned a couple of guys sitting at a bar, sawdust and brass spittoons on the floor, beer at a nickel a glass, (Let’s remember that 1923 was during prohibition, let’s think about this group of guys sitting at the bar)
And I imaged the conversation went something like this, “Hey, I got an idea, let’s start a fire company.” Now they have no firehouse, no fire truck, no money and the only volunteers ready and willing to join this non existing fire company is the other guys sitting at the bar with them. (HEY, I’m IN!)
But in September 1923 that’s just what David Dowdle, Arthur Youngjohn, Reuben Kilpatrick, John Gravel, Sam McFarland, Roscoe Prizer and Thomas Morris did. They invited all male residents of Whitemarsh to attend their next meeting to see if they could get any volunteers to help raise money and go out fighting fires. (Notice the call went out to all MALE residents)
Well at the first official meeting the treasurer’s report amounted to $61.00 in contributions. The first fund raiser was a carnival held a month later and netted a profit of $474.00. By the end of December of 1923 the total membership was at 105 men and a balance in their fire company account was $992.00. A charter for the fire company was filed in November of 1923.
After purchasing a Hale Fire Company fire truck for $2,500. (Yes, the Hale Fire Pump Company on Spring Mill Avenue built fire trucks for a number of years right here in Conshohocken) and securing housing for the truck the fire company set up their next fund raiser for a June 28, carnival that was held on the Lee Tire Grounds. The carnival became the fire company’s biggest fund raiser for the next 36 consecutive summers until 1954, when the District Attorney of Montgomery County Bernard DiJoseph cracked down on lotteries and other gambling devices. For 36 years the Spring Mill Fire Company held a 10 day carnival that was like no other in Montgomery County.
As mentioned the first Spring Mill carnival was held in October 1923 and it was a street carnival held on Hector Street in front of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company, the one day carnival was well received and raised more than $400.00 for the fire company. Five years later in 1929 the carnival was expanded to eight nights along with a Saturday afternoon of events that included two high divers, a Ferris wheel, carousel and a number of other park amusements with the raffle of a Ford Automobile that was awarded on the final night of the event. While a number of these rides and events don‘t sound like a big deal today, this was 1929 and rides like Ferris wheels and moving carousels were state of the art.
In 1929 newspapers claimed that the Spring Mill Fire Company was the largest to date and was the best carnival in the Montgomery County area, but by 1937 the fair was drawing such large crowds it was declared that the Fair was one of the best of its kind in the middle states area. Billy Ritchie and his Water Circus was a new attraction and continued to draw an amazement of visitors with hair raising, death defying stunts.
At the 11th annual Spring Mill Fire Company Fair in 1939, the feature acts continued to expand. In 1939 “The Great Peters” was a man who would hang himself for a living high atop a scaffold erected at the upper end of the fair grounds and there was an aerial troupe among other performers. The fair also included a hobby show which brought exhibiters from all over the county.
In the 1940’s Morris Hannum was bringing his fair to the Spring Mill Fire Company’s 33 acre fair grounds for a ten day thrill shows and an expanded midway that included all the usual games and attractions for all ages, entertainment and refreshments and crowds that would rival the Wildwood Boardwalk on the Fourth of July. During the 1940’s thrilling aerial acts were part of the entrainment that included Peaches Sky Review featuring a six girl daring aerial act. And then there was Leo “Suicide Simon” who would blow himself up, how exciting.
For many years the Spring Mill Fire Company would send their fire trucks to the “Pines,” to pick up the children at the summer vacation home once located at the intersection of Butler and Ridge Pikes. The Pines was a summer home for single mothers from Philadelphia who would bring their children to Harmanville every summer for rest and relaxation. The firemen would bring the children to the fire company carnival during the day when it was closed and allow the children to enjoy the rides for a couple of hours at no cost.
The biggest fire company fund raiser at the annual fair were the raffle chances for an automobile, visitors would purchase tickets from the fire company and on the final night of the fair every year a name would be drawn and win a brand new automobile. There were also other games of chance like “The Wheel,” and other raffle tickets pulled nightly for cash, and prizes.
The popular ten day and night fair started to falter in 1954 when a ban on lotteries and games of chance were enforced by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office. Two years later in the summer of 1956 Pennsylvania Governor George Leader at a press conference stated that the gaming law prohibiting Bingo, chancing off automobiles by fire companies, churches and hospitals would be strictly enforced throughout the state.
Thirty years after the Spring Mill Fire Company shut-down their carnival, the Washington Fire Company and Conshohocken Fire Company No 2 held a series of joint carnivals and fairs.
These Carnivals and fairs were held at the Conshohocken “B” Field and on empty lots located at West Seventh Avenue and Fayette Street and later empty lots created by the demolition of downtown buildings. As a matter of fact the Washington Fire Company was able to raise a good portion of the funds to pay for a new Pumper Truck back in the early 1950’s with a series of Block Parties and Carnivals throughout the summer. This was back when the fire companies raised money to purchase new fire trucks by holding spaghetti Dinners, hoagie sales, and passing a fire –boot at intersections.
Despite many other Conshohocken carnivals and fairs over the past 170 years, none compares with the 32 year run that the Spring Mill Fire Company had with their yearly carnival that brought residents from throughout Montgomery County and beyond.
Perhaps fairs and carnivals will return to Conshohocken in 2021, and if they do perhaps our younger generation can build memories of their own so that in thirty or forty years from now they too can reminisce about the wonderful times they had as children.
PHOTOGRAPHS above and below include images of the Spring Mill Fair in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Assorted photos taken at the B-Field carnivals over the years and a couple of photos from a fireman’s fair held in 1984 at the once open field at West Seventh Avenue and Fayette Street, a space now occupied by a bank. I was unable to run photos from a number of the Washies Block Parties due to a missing photo file from Jack’s very complicated filing system, “complicated” is the mystery word here!
Please feel free to share your carnival memories and add a carnival photo or two.
See ya at our next carnival, I’m the guy with the camera strapped around my neck.