|Picture by Gwen Lacell|
It is getting close to Fair time again and stories of the Madison County Fair abound among the older residents of rural Madison County’s southern hills. The once well-known fair, called in the 1930s and 40s the “ Biggest Little Fair in New York State” attracted crowds estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 people. Today our modern cars, fast-paced life-style and our yearn for all that’s electronic, has left our rural roots behind. America it seems has become beautiful color pictures and oh so much nostalgic talk to a generation of text messagers and computer “geeks." But all that said, it has been a joy to read through the stories of the Madison County Fair’s past glory.
In the early fairs wrestling was the fair’s highlight of physical endeavors and the wresters were well remembered including some that made it into the Professional Wrestlers Hall of Fame. One such lad was John Bonica who worked the fairs as a wrestler in the summer to pay his way through college. (Later he became a famous Doctor.)
The best remembered story about John is the one telling how he pulled the famous Professor George Keller out of a ring of wild cats and helped resuscitate him. The story account actually came from an article in the Saturday Evening Post of November 6th, 1943 recounted in the book “Brookfield’s Pride” written by the Brookfield High School class of 2007. The story is about legendary wild animal trainer Professor George Keller. Keller is remembered as the only trainer who was able to put many varieties of wild cats into a ring together.
Keller started his career as a young man growing up in a town like so many American towns that welcomed the circus every year. After seeing the wild animal act, George went home and got the children of his neighborhood to dress up like wild cats so he could tame them. This included clipping a few pet cats to look like the “real thing”. One year while he was at college, one of his old friend “buddies” sent him a wild young cat in a box and told him to train it, and he did!
Keller as part of his wild animal act always put his head into a lion’s mouth. The lion would close his mouth around Keller’s head with Keller’s neck between his fangs and on the count of ten, Keller would tap the lion’s mouth and the cat would open it. Well on this rain day in Brookfield the cat did not open his mouth. In the article title “I’m scared All of the Time,” Keller recounts waking up to the voices of Bonica and firemen who dragged him out of the ring and resuscitated him. Keller had suffocated, and when he went limp was drop like a dead mouse by the lion. Keller was considered dead for three minutes before being finally resuscitated by the firemen, regained his composure and called for the cat to come back into the cage and redid the stunt, this time the cat opened his mouth.
In the “Brookfield’s Pride” book, Hobie Morris recounts interviewing Keller who said he had to do this, or the lion would have thought him afraid, though Keller never performed that trick again.
For the 2014 Fair schedule, or more information on the Madison County Fair one of the oldest in America go to the Madison County Fair Facebook Page!