Recalling Oconto Falls of past Memorial Days

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We’ve just gone through the Memorial Day weekend. When I was a kid, it was called “Decoration Day,” but that weekend was one of the highlights of the year in my little hometown.

In addition to the “regular” Memorial Day observance – the serious cemetery commemorations for the soldiers who had died in war, the parade and, at least for a couple of years, the airplane flying low over the river and dropping a floral cross – there was a carnival at the grounds near the football field.

The Meverden family, long-time Oconto Falls residents, ran Meverden Amusements, a carnival company, and they traveled all over, but one of their big weekends obviously was the hometown celebration for Memorial Day. It was kind of their kickoff to the summer carnival season, a test run for all the rides.

Lloyd and Anna Meverden and all their kids worked in the business. Greg and Jerry were in my class at St. Anthony’s, and they were the envy of a lot of us – because we thought the carnival life must be really exciting. Imagine traveling from town to town and meeting all kinds of people! Most of us didn’t get to do much traveling in those days. It never occurred to us that that life must have been really hard work and the Meverden kids were working their buns off all summer!

To the kids of Oconto Falls, when the Meverdens were set up for the weekend, it meant a great time. Fifteen rides for a dollar! The Tilt-a-Whirl, the Ferris wheel, the Rock-o-plane, the Caterpillar, wow! How much fun could you stand for a dollar?

But there was more to the weekend than just the carnival rides. It was more than the cotton candy and the game tents where you could win chalk dolls and stuffed animals. It was more than walking up and down the midway with your friends and having a great time. There were the “free acts” and the wrestling matches, too!

The free acts (I didn’t see them on the placard for this year’s celebration) were exciting. They were circus acts that were booked onto the grounds and everyone could watch them without having to pay. “Free acts” – that’s what we all called them. I remember one year, I was probably in sixth or seventh grade, one of the free acts was a sway-pole acrobat. He had a pole that was probably 75 feet high, but to us it seemed much higher than that (it was taller than the light standards at the football field!).

This guy did some amazing acrobatic handstands and headstands while that pole swayed in a huge arc, back and forth, back and forth. Oohs and aahs, shrieks of fear and of excitement rose from the crowd of people standing with their heads tipped back to watch the act. And then … just as he seemed to have finished his flawless act and was taking a big bow way up there on that treacherous pole, it snapped! And he appeared to be plunging to his death! All part of the act! He rode the pole down and it dropped him off on the ground. The crowd erupted with laughter and applause. We loved it that we were taken in by his fake accident, and we all came back to see him do it again the next day.

Another thing I remember was the wrestling tent. This was in the days before Hulk Hogan and the Rock. Wisconsin had some local favorites, and in their early days some of these guys would travel a circuit of county fairs and celebrations like ours and challenge the locals to come into the ring with them. Some of these guys moved on to become “bigger shots,” but when we saw them, they were just starting out. Guys like “The Bruiser” and “Dick the Crusher” (I think he might have been a Packer at one time) would come in and urge some of the hometown favorites to try to stay in the ring with them for some small cash prize. Most of them couldn’t compete with these guys, but one, Alten Blaser, was pretty darn good and he thrilled all of us kids by doing pretty well in the ring.

Man, that Memorial Day weekend celebration brought back some terrific memories. Anybody else have memories of similar events?

Roger VanHaren can be reached at rjmavh@gmail.com.