Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Bruce Greater Shows: An American Carnival

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Bruce Greater Shows’ No. 5 Big Eli Ferris Wheel, manufactured by the Eli Bridge Company, was 40’ tall and weighed in at 6 tons. Photo courtesy of Dennis Davis.

Banners and handbills touted the upcoming Kutztown Fair of 1927 as four big days and nights of festivities, fireworks and fun. Pennsylvanians speak of that legendary agricultural exposition, founded in 1870, as “The Biggest Little Fair in the State.”

Promoters know that the real drawing card for any such outdoor extravaganza is its midway amusements. Centermost in Kutztown’s promotions was an assurance to the public: “THE MIDWAY—Bruce Greater Shows, with 20 cars, six rides and 15 shows—clean as a ‘hound’s tooth.’”

The idiom “clean as a hound’s tooth” denotes something as being very clean, polished, reputable, honest, free of wrongdoing. Some outdoor traveling shows of the day had gained a reputation for shady characters and shadowy doings, leaving some towns leery of welcoming other outfits. Reputable showmen worked hard to overcome such perceptions, and Bruce Greater Shows was known for doing things right. But then, what else could they do with Mother Bruce always along for the ride?

Nellie Bruce Davis (1886–1967), daughter of George W. and Lucy Millie Bruce, c.1938, with the travel trailer she lived in during the carnival season. Photo courtesy of Dennis Davis.

Eminent Albemarle County historian and writer Vera V. Via sat down in 1955 with then-90-years-young Lucy Millie Walton Bruce, matriarch of the Bruce Greater Shows carnival family. As the Boonesville nonagenarian turned the pages of a scrapbook she collected during her years on the carnival circuit, Miss Vera noted, “She spins a tale, her eyes sparkling in mem­ory, and one can almost hear the ca­rousel music and noises. Her great love is still the carnival and the memo­ries of those years on the road. She admits she still misses the gaiety and laughter, the excitement.

“It took a heavy toll of strength and nerves to carry it from place to place, set it up and open on time, and it meant living out of a trunk. For a good part of the year, they were on the move, playing in a number of the eastern states. When winter came, they re­turned to Boonesville and packed the show away until spring once again called them out to the open road.”

Nell Davis managed the Whiz-Bang “clown fun house.” One newspaper writer said, “There is a whole barrel of nonsense in this contraption, and it should go over big with the kiddies, as well as make kiddies of the grown-ups.” Photo courtesy Dennis Davis.

George W. Bruce and wife Lucy Millie began their outdoor show careers at Gordonsville with a lone merry-go-round, or, as Lucy Millie related to Vera Via, “One set of hobby-horses.” Moving that cumbersome steam engine-driven apparatus by heavy wagons from their remote base in western Albemarle County was a feat in itself. Similar small carnival outfits were known as “gilly shows”, with equipment transported by wagon (or “gilly”) to a train station where it was loaded into boxcars and then transported by rail from town to town. Carnival historian Joe McKennon noted, “Everything had to be handled four times on each move.”

In 1905, while operating their “joy machine” at Basic City nearby Waynesboro, hooligans slashed the ropes securing the tent canopy covering the amusement, an unfortunate blow to a Mom-and-Pop outfit that was always vulnerable to a loss of receipts from quarrelsome patrons and nature’s elements. Their venues in those early days included small railroad towns east and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Bruce, Walton and Davis families of Boonesville, western Albemarle County, traveled the outdoor show circuit with their Bruce Greater Shows carnival from c.1905–1941. Photo courtesy of Dennis Davis.

Encouraged by each successful season, the Bruces continued to grow their outfit. By 1911, when their show route included Mocksville, the seat of government for Davie County, N.C., the Davie newspaper reported, “The Bruce Carnival gave their first shows Saturday evening to a good sized audience. The different attractions are well worth the price of admission, and the show is clean and up-to-date in every particular.”

The Bruce’s family-run carnival grew to encompass a seasonal route stretching from Georgia to upstate New York. The operation’s name became Bruce Greater Shows, trumpeting its hard-earned standing in the industry. In 1926, son James H. “Jim Henry” Bruce, who had learned showmanship alongside his parents, leased the business from his father. Equipment listed in their agreement included: “one Hershell-Spillman merry-go-round, three abreast complete; one Eli Ferris Wheel No. 5, complete; one Minstrel Show, tent and fixtures complete; tents and fixtures complete for one Athletic Show; tent and fixtures for one Hawaiian Show; tent and fixtures for one Shake Show; one Wurlitzer Band Organ; one piano; two Fordson tractors; six wagons; three flat cars; one private car, known as Virginia; concession tents, and living tops; two transformers, one 25 K.W. and one 10 K.W.”

Lucy Mildred Walton Bruce, “Lucy Millie”, age 91, the Queen of the Carousel, relaxing at the home of her niece Clara Young Whyte. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb.

The Route Book for Bruce Greater Shows’ 1930 season listed 20 features including rides and shows. The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton, N.C. reported that a “special train of 20-double-length cars arrived bearing the shows. Thirty-four wagons are used carrying the equipment from the cars to the grounds. Some 200 people are assisting in the midway entertainment.”

Obviously, not all the help was family. John Marks, who led a carnival show of his own later, ran the cookhouse for them. In the late 1920s, Bruce Greater Shows took in teenaged Dutch immigrant Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, helping the youth to get his feet planted firmly on a new continent. In later years, renaming himself ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, the former carnival trouper managed the musical careers of Eddy Arnold, Jimmie Davis (who later became the Governor of Louisiana), Elvis Presley, and Hank Snow. Parker, when honored for his achievements by the Showmen’s League of America, gave a tip-of-the-hat to the Bruce family by listing their carnival near the top of his “career affiliations.”

Vera Via wrote of Lucy Millie Bruce, whom she dubbed the “Queen of the Carousel”: “She raised one grandson while following the carnival. But it proved a hard life, and her husband George W. Bruce (1861–1933) died after a number of years on the road. Dis­asters often come in flocks, and the next great loss was the death of her son, James Henry Bruce (1884–1935). The two widows, she recalls, at­tempted to run the show for a time alone, but her daughter-in-law’s heart was no longer in it. So they sold it, and Mrs. Lucy Bruce re­turned to Boonesville. The show had been on the road for 36 years she says, when it closed.”

And, no doubt, still clean as a hound’s tooth, just the way Mother would want it. 

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2019 Phil James

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