STRANGE GH: Strange sights at today’s carnivals are nothing compared to spectacles from the past

Aug 1, 2011

If you think some of the sights at the carnival are a bit freaky today, they are nothing compared to what used to be on Washington Avenue for public consumption. Oddities too strange to believe, but they occurred right here in downtown Grand Haven.

The Grand Haven Moose Lodge in July 1914 hosted a fundraiser that brought what was called “The Great American Shows” to town. The carnival set up their display on Washington and First Street, next to the Story & Clark building. A major public draw back then was the freak show. — the more strange, the better.

Colonel Fred was a popular celebrity and attraction. He was a horse, of course — but a smart one at that. Fred’s talents included “adding, subtracting and multiplying on a blackboard” — the July 27, 1914, Grand Haven Tribune reported. The mathematician horse, using a piece of chalk between his teeth, would write the answers to the problems on the chalkboard.

But wait — there’s more. Fred could make change out of a cash register drawer and also played various musical instruments.

Carnivals also featured exotic creatures; one which got loose and terrorized the city, it was reported. A live attraction, said to be “a queer little animal,” had departed its cage — and, after a futile search, the carnival troupe had to leave town without it. The front page of the July 7 Tribune that same year published an article about the creature on the loose, sporting the headline, “Freak animal left by carnival show.” The sub-headline read: “Looks like a turtle but it isn’t!”

“A formidable beast he is,” the Grand Haven Tribune reported. “Of course, but not entirely dangerous.” The newspaper asked residents to “stay calm” while the oddity remained loose in the city.

Resident Charles Topham, who owned a restaurant on Washington Avenue, offered a reward for the creature’s capture. The “beast” was captured the next month by a man in Holland. The Holland Sentinel reported the fugitive looked like “a mixture of all kinds of turtles.”

Other early carnival displays of the period included a public American Indian wedding ceremony between a Sioux and Navaho; and a psychic and magician of sorts named “Marshall the Hypnotist,” who had the uncanny power to locate hidden cutlery.

Performing at the outdoor Airdome on Washington Avenue, Marshall astounded Grand Havenites when he was able to use his mental powers to locate a piece of silverware a resident had hidden somewhere in the city. And Marshall did this blindfolded.

If you dare to wander the downtown main street during the carnival this summer during Coast Guard Festival, don’t be too shocked at some of the strange things you may see. Unless, of course, a horse makes change for you out of a cash register.

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