Down Memory Lane: Rockville VFD Carnival
On this date 90 years ago the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department held its first annual carnival.
From The Daily News, Frederick Maryland, August 10, 1932:
At a special meeting of the department August 5 it was unanimously voted that a carnival should be held on the Fairgrounds from September 3 to 10, inclusive. The first event will be a fireman’s parade and hook-up contests with three cups being offered as prizes. Other items of interest will be the baby show, the old-fashioned square dance, and the public wedding. An automobile and fifteen cash prizes are to be given away during the carnival.
The Carnival Parade
The carnival parade always kicked off the celebrations and were held on the first day, with the intent of drawing the spectators to the carnival grounds. 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. Following the procession, teams of 10 men each, engaged in a tug-of-war contests in front of the dancing pavilion at the fair ground.
The June 1960 Rockville Sanborn map below shows the location of the Rockville Fire Department Carnival Grounds. From what I have been able to piece together from newspaper archives, the carnival began in 1932 and closed sometime in the early 1970s. The carnival office and administrative building used to be the one-room doctor’s office built for and used by Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet from 1852 to 1903. It was donated to the Montgomery County Historical Society and moved to the complex in 1972.
All of the buildings, including flood lights, fencing and metal frames for carnival stands, on the 10-acre site on the Rockville Pike were permanent fixtures all year long and remained unused until the carnival. In 1947, a 70-foot dance pavilion with detachable side walls was built by labor and materials donated by members of the department and Rockville citizens. Over the years, department members built the 12 red and white wooden buildings on the grounds.
The Rockville Fire Department held its annual carnival during the month of August. The eight-night carnival was the staple of the organization’s fundraising for several decades. Locals came to the carnival every year to enjoy the rides, win raffle prizes, listen to the live music every night and most importantly, to eat the food. It was the perfect place to catch up with friends, ride a few rides and maybe win a gold fish that might actually remain alive by the time you got home.
Valuable prizes given away nightly. Prizes by General Electric:
- 4-Speed Record Player
- Vacuum Cleaner
- Portable Transistor Radio
- Roll Around Fans
- Toaster Ovens
All prizes — including the automobiles, and the items like vacuum cleaners and record players as grounds prizes — were bought by the Department. Nothing was donated except the time and work of the volunteers.
Not One, Not Two, but Three…
It is exciting to note that for many years, a car was the grand prize given away at the carnival. Three spanking new automobiles were awarded to lucky ticket holders.
Beauty Contest, Wedding to Highlight Carnival
A public wedding and a bathing beauty contest for “Miss Rockville” highlighted the eight-night carnival on August 12, 1949. The contest winner receives $75 and have the honor of representing the firemen in a September contest at Sandy Spring for the title of “Miss Montgomery County Fireman of 1949.”
From The Evening Star, August 17, 1949:
Rockville’s Volunteer firemen are beginning to believe in sawdust wedding aisles as lucky omens.
All 17 couples who in as many years have been married in public at the Rockville fireman’s carnival have lived happily ever after – at least without a divorce.
And the firemen are counting on this year’s couple, Arthur Fleming, 21, Rockville Post Office employee, and his 18 year old bride, Dorothy Lucille Campbell Fleming of Gaithersburg to maintain that record. The two were married last night at the carnival, and like their predecessors, they spoke their vows over a loud speaker in view of a merry-go-round and walked down a sawdust aisle edged with 5,000 onlookers.
Chief W. Valentine Wilson originated the public wedding at the Rockville Carnival back in 1932. The firemen provided a $500 set of furniture, the wedding license, ring, minister, bridal gown, bridegroom’s and ushers’ white tie and tails and flowers.
Some of the town folk weren’t too much in favor of the idea and almost talked a town minister out of performing the ceremony. Later they found out the ceremonies are all very solemn affairs with no frivolity and bystanders even whimpered. For the 17 weddings, State Fireman’s Association Chaplain James C. Minter has conducted the ceremonies. Most of the nuptials ran smoothly, but the Chief remembered one that edged on the border line. That was the time a bridegroom, kneeling at the altar with his bride, whispered, “I can’t get up.”
As to why the marriages have been such successes, Fire Department General Counsel David E. Betts, thinks he has the answer: “If they love each other enough to be married at a carnival public wedding under the populace’s eyes, they’ve got enough love to hold them together for life.”
Music has been a big part of the carnival over the years too, as big-name country acts performed at the fairgrounds. There were floor shows each night featuring artists such as Conway Twitty & the Twittybirds, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Jimmy Dean, Patsy Cline, the Osborne Brothers, and many others.
Nightly entertainment featured attractions such as a trapeze artist, hillbilly comedy, Punch and Judy show, old fashioned hoedowns, the Jamboree Boys of television fame, a western rope spinning and whip act, thrilling acrobatic on the slack wire, comedy juggling act by Billy Dale, the Ringling Brothers circus clown, and the Blue Mountain Boys. And nightly dancing in the Pavilion to the music of Sid Graham’s “Five Tones.”
Also appearing were the Shirleyettes with Linda Rita Peluzo, a versatile young lady who danced, sang, and played the accordion. The Eng Sisters, a Chinese trio, entertained with modern song. Carol Bo Barnstead, a flaming baton twirler, appeared with the young Jean Kruppa and Bert Bottamilla on drums.
From The News, Frederick MD 07 August 1965:
Local talent such as the Rockville Municipal Band under the direction of Frank Troy, the Tune Twisters with the Darnell Sisters, and Johnny Glaze and the Night Hawks will round out the entertainment for the two week period. Proceeds from the carnival will go toward payment of a $15,000 Miller-Meteor Cadillac ambulance and a $62,000 Peter Pirsch, 100 foot aerial ladder which were put into service to meet the demands of a growing community.
“Dime to play, dime to win, come on in!” The games – The Duck Pond, simply pick up a floating rubber duck out of the water, turn it over to see your prize. Dunk Tank, Rifle Range, Hoop-la (throw hoops around pegs), Balloon Pitch, Teddy Bear Toss (get ring completely around bear stand for 1st prize), Guess Your Age, Cigarette Wheel (spin the wheel and win unfiltered cigarettes)… Lucky Strikes, Camels, and other horrible brands. Lamps (ring toss over miniature lamps was a lot harder than it looked). Panda Bear Stand, ring a coke bottle to win one. Test your strength on the “High Striker” (driving a puck up a tower with a hammer to ring the bell). Rifle Range, 25 cents for shots with a carnival rifle at rotating ducks you just fired away for prizes. And for those a bit older, the favorite game was Bingo.
The closest thing to “big” trouble the carnival ever had was the escape of a mouse from the “guess-which-hole” mouse game. A stand that year featured a game in which a live mouse was put on a board with several numbered holes. Players bet on which hole the mouse would choose. When the mouse was put on the board, it got scared and ran away! It was the only mouse, so two firemen had to chase it all over the grounds to catch it. The game was discontinued after that incident.
In 1935, county residents, in a special referendum, gave the Fire Department and other non-profit community and church groups the right to hold raffles and bingo games.
The heart of the historic fireman’s carnival was the rides – Ferris Wheel, Kiddy Automobiles, Merry-Go-Round, Kiddy Aeroplanes, Scrambler, Loop-O-Plane, Round Up, Dipper Dive Bomber, Octopus, Paratrooper, Live Pony Rides, Kiddy Train, Kiddy Boat Ride, Space Chaser and Tank Ride. The rides were operated by a commercial firm. Everything else was staged or staffed by the volunteer firemen and their families, plus friends of the department who donated their time. For parents, a lot of enjoyment came from seeing their kids having such a good time. Below are a few samples (only) of the rides that were featured at the carnival.
This ride is fast — really fast. Proving that rides don’t have to go high to make you question all of your choices, The Scrambler is something you shouldn’t ride if you’ve eaten within your current lifetime. Picture this: the ride has three arms. On the ends of each of those arms are clusters of individual cars, each on a smaller arm of its own. When the Scrambler starts, the main arm and the little arms all rotate. The outermost arms are slowed and the inner arms are accelerated, creating an illusion of frighteningly close collisions between the cars and passengers. The Scrambler proves that you don’t have to go on a roller coaster to lose your lunch or have the wits scared out of you.
One of the most entertaining rides that you can go on at any carnival is called The Octopus. The arms go up and down multiple times during the ride, but it is the spinning action of the ride itself which causes the carts to automatically spin, making this one of the most fun rides ever created.
The Paratrooper, also known as the Parachute Ride or Umbrella Ride is a type of carnival ride where the seats are suspended below a wheel which rotates at an angle. The seats are free to rock sideways and swing out as the wheel rotates.
The Tilt-a-Whirl ride wildly spins in countless directions at variable speeds. Calculated chaos ensued. Those who look a little green or lose their lunch of hot dogs, cotton candy, and soda pop are probably just coming off a Tilt-a-Whirl.
The Loop-O-Plane is just what it sounds like: Mechanical arms take riders, over and over, in a stomach flip-flopping, upside-down-turning loop.
The Round Up has been a popular ride on the American carnival midway since the 1950s. Riders stand against the wall and as the barrel begins to spin, they are stuck to the wall. The barrel soon raises in the air at a 70 degree angle.
Did I mention the food? Carnivals are a feast for the senses. The smells of food floods the air with the toasty, oily, salty smell of french fried potatoes mingled with scents of buttered popcorn, spicy pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and other tasty treats. Those french fries in a paper cone with vinegar… didn’t you just love those french fries? There was fried chicken that Colonel Sanders would have to salute. And as if that was not enough, there was snack time. The night would not be complete without cotton candy or a caramel apple. And I would be remiss to not mention the infamous funnel cake, which is either loved or hated; there is no middle ground.
For hundreds of children who grew up in the Rockville area, the carnival is where they held their first job. It was such a great tradition and a real community effort. Unfortunately, due to increased call volume, the fire department had to end the annual event. Carnival revenue has since been replaced by a combination of public funding, private donations, and commercial income.
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.
Sources of Information:
Library of Congress digital collection of Sanborn maps
Chronicling America digitized newspapers
Newspapers.com historical newspapers