When I was a boy during the 1950s, I lived in a picturesque, if run down, village on top of a hill
in Northeastern Connecticut - Thompson Hill. The village was long ago a way station on a post road that linked
Providence, Rhode Island and Worcester, Massachusetts. After the Civil War, the managerial class that ran
the mills and factories down in the valley of the French River bought all of the homes around the town common
and, being newly prosperous, turned modest New England saltbox farmhouses into extravagant Victorian, Greek
Revival, one spectacular example of Carpenter's Gothic, and representatives of various other architectural styles.
Thompson Hill even boasted no fewer than four genuine mansions, including Carolyn Hall, a magnificent Georgian
pile that would not have been out of place on Newport's Bellevue Avenue. The high-water mark of this prosperity
would have been 1888, a date carved on the cornerstone of one of the more modest homes.
Down in the river valley, water-driven mills churned out textiles, furniture and all manner of manufactured goods. Along the length of the French River from up in Massachusetts and down through Connecticut were thriving milltowns - Webster, Grosvenordale, North Grosvenordale, Putnam - clustered along the riverbanks. In each community, rows of tidy and substantial brick houses had been built by the mill owners and rented to employees. The communities that grew up around the mills reflected successive waves of immigrants, Swedes, Greeks, Poles, French-Canadians. They built schools and churches, formed clubs, held ethnic and religious festivals. All was very lively and vital until 1955. In that year, a devastating flood swept through the valley. There was a lot of damage and as the years went on, there was a steady decline in the viability of the old mill economy. It never recovered and many of these industries migrated south and overseas.
My parents moved into a house on Thompson Hill in 1957. I was four years old. When I was enrolled at St. Joseph's School down the hill in North Grosvenordale, most of my classmates were from families that had been affected by the flood. Throughout those years, I would hear teachers and the parents of my friends talking about it. After World War II and the Great Depression, it was the biggest event in their lives. I remember in particular Mrs. Robillard, my fourth grade teacher, who told of how, when they were forced to evacuate their home, they packed all of their family treasures - Bible, photo albums and so forth - in a box and put it on the second floor, thinking it would be safe. When the waters receded and they returned, although the house still stood intact, the box had been swept away. There were many stories like that. But the biggest story was the irreversible decline in local industries and the economy.
Just down the river was the small city of Putnam, named for the hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill. A classic small New England milltown. Along the stretch of river that lay between the two main mills - Belding-Heningway, manufacturers of sewing thread, and Hale Manufacturing, spinners of yarn - had been a thriving little village of rowhouses that the mills had built for their employees. They had been devastated by the flood. After the waters receded, the whole place was bulldozed flat. During the years that I was in grammar school, that place remained empty, covered with weeds and strewn with broken brick and smashed glass. It was a huge, ugly scar on the heart of what was otherwise a pleasant little city where the mills were decked out with cupolas and towers, expressions of the ebullient prosperity of the late 19th Century.
It would have been around 1960 that my father put us all in the old green Ford and drove us down the hill to Putnam. To our astonishment and delight, on the barren plain had arisen a huge circus tent, brightly striped red and white. The grounds were teeming with people and performers. We went in and I saw the most memorable spectacle of my small town childhood - a genuine three ring circus. It had everything: trapeze artists, magicians, an equestrian act, high wire, acrobats, performing dogs. elephants, lions and, of course, clowns. I'll never forget the moment when I figured out how the clowns were faking a levitation act and gleefully exposed the fraud.
What made a deeper impression on me, one that has returned to me again and again over my lifetime, was that marvelous, life-affirming, even death-defying spectacle that rose up out of all the destruction of the Great Flood of '55. And so circuses are special to me and I would give every child who has ever experienced destruction and loss a circus all of his or her own.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, with the help of Ringmaster Extraordinaire Professor Tom Constantine (whose sponsorship helps, rather than hinders), I give you Constantine's Circus.
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CONSTANTINE'S CIRCUS, INC.
PO Box 7223
Albany, NY 12224-0223