It was a typically hot, sunny July 6, 1944. The 12,000 seat Ringling Brothers Big Top, erected on Barbour Street in Hartford, was at 50-percent capacity.
By 2:45 p.m. that day, 168 people would lose their lives in a smoky tangle of fallen canvas; burnt benches; and trampled children and adults. Nine of these victims were from the Farmington Valley. One was from Canton.
At the time, there were no regulations preventing tents from "water-proofing" their Big Tops with gasoline and paraffin. In terms of actual "fire-proof" tents, there was one major supplier in 1944 — the military.
The Circus was given the option of purchasing "fire-proof" tents from the military. There was, however, one condition. The quid pro quo was that Ringling Brothers must include military bases in their annual tour. John Ringling agreed to the provision. Other members of his family did not and the purchase was thus overruled.
Circus bandleader Merle Evans would see flames early on. Part of his job was to alert the other circus folk of emergencies in the Big Top — with music. The 911 song to be played under these circumstances was, Stars and Stripes Forever.
As that music played, there were Canton residents who would end the day as heroes, others as witnesses and some as victims.
Canton residents Mrs. Thyra Marie Smith and Mrs. Raymond Barnes had gone to the circus together that day. Both women would suffer serious burns during the inferno.
Mrs. Barnes’ burnt arms and legs would eventually heal. Mrs. Smith’s third and fourth degree burns would not. Ernest W. Smith, one of her three sons, would be the one to identify ID tag #2119 at the Hartford State Armory, as his mother.
Thyra Smith, a resident of Canton for more than 25 years, was a member of the Cawasa Grange. On July 13, 1944, she was buried at Canton Street Cemetery, after a memorial at Canton Baptist Church. Her estate would eventually be awarded $7,500.00 in an arbitrated settlement.
Canton Center’s Paul Johnson was also at the circus that day, with his wife. Once she was safely outside the tent, Johnson returned to what the Herald called the, “furnace of the blazing Big Top,” to save dozens of women and children.
Other witnesses to the tragedy who escaped with their lives were: Collinsville residents Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Anderson and their son Ernest Jr, in addition to Mr. and Mrs. Wademor Erickson and their sons Ronald and Russell.
Then, there was the group of Collinsville teenagers. Branaid Hough; Bobby Mogridge; David Goyer; Daniel Dyer; Henry Bahre; Jean Bahre and James Eddy scrambled down the backside of the bleachers, to the outside and relative safety of the heat of the July sun.
Here’s the Deal
Thanks to Kathy Jenkins, librarian at the Canton Historical Museum, for her assistance with research materials.
Additional information at: www.circusfire1944.com.