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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Medicine Show

Got the following short note from Dave Kalm down in Florida. It's a brief memory of him seeing a medicine show in New Gretna when he was about 7 years old. It's a subject that I know little about but worthy of mentioning here at the Blog in hopes that others out there may be able to add information.

I wanted to mention the traveling medicine show that used to come to New Gretna in the summer. Maybe you have had something on that I missed. I went with my Dad, I was probably 7 or eight at the time. It was in the mid thirties. The performers set up their stage on the back of an old model truck next to the Knights of Pythias hall, across from Donald Maxwell's home, on New York Road (Rt. 9). I remember that the performers were not locals. I also remember the older fellows in town throwing tomatoes at the performers. They kept the tomatoes hidden in a basket under the steps of the KP building. I can remember a tomato hitting a fat lady playing the piano, got her right in the back. I wish I could tell you more. 

Dave Kalm

When the Medicine Show came to New Gretna, it set up next to the Knights of Pythias Hall on New York Road, now Rt. 9. It got the whole town a buzzin'. (Photo courtesy of Paul Steinhauer.)

This old photo of a medicine show is probably more elaborate than those that stopped by little old New Gretna; however, the idea of gathering a crowd by providing entertainment to sell some bottled medicine was universal. There usually was a singer and comedian to appeal to the crowd, inter spaced with the slick pitch of a medicine man selling the elixir to cure all ills. Wonder if these folks ever had to dodge a tomato?

Dave's brief recollection tells us that medicine shows were a form of entertainment in the New Gretna of yesteryear. Almira Cramer Steele, briefly mentioned medicine shows, in her December, 2000 Bass River Gazette article entitled "Another Thing I Remember, Summertime Fun." Unfortunately, her memory of the shows was less specific than Dave's recollections.

We also had a Medicine Show come to town every summer. Everybody went to it out of curiosity, I believe, because those shows were so awful they were funny. The company had a flat bed truck which they pulled up between the old Knights of Pythias Hall and the little restaurant near the corner of Rt. 9 and South Maple Avenue. Both of these buildings have since been demolished. [Almira Cramer Steele]

New Gretna was not the only small South Jersey town to be visited by the traveling Medicine Show. They were popular throughout the Pine Barrens as evidenced by the following poem by Lillian Arnold Lopez, a Forked River Piney, in her book, "Pineylore". Lillian paints a vivid word picture of this American phenomenon. She shows that the shows, which came through once a year, were eagerly anticipated by the local folk. She offers  a glimpse of the entertainment offered and closes with the pitch of the Medicine Man. Since she speaks of wagons, she is obviously referring to an earlier time than Dave and Almira's recollections; however, her descriptions are probably not much different than what Dave and Almira experienced in New Gretna.

The Medicine Show

Every summer, in the old days, they listened for a sound,
when they heard the ratt'lin wagons, it was time to gather 'round.
The medicine show they'd waited for was comin' down the road.
The horses' labored breathin' told they pulled a heavy load.

And when they pulled into the town the villagers looked on
to see the show they'd waited for upon the village lawn.
A horseback rider's daring tricks, it made the people gasp.
A cowboy sang about his gal, his voice a whining rasp.

A juggler kept half'dozen plates suspended in the air.
A pretty girl in spangles danced with a big, black bear.
Then, after entertaining with acting and with song,
the medicine man began his spiel, and brother, it was long!

"The elixir in this wagon you see lined up on the wall,
is guaranteed to help your kidneys, yur liver and your gall.
It cures a cough, it stops an itch, it eases aches and pains.
It calms your nerves, it strengthens bladders, use it on your sprains."

"Your horse's gimp, your husband's limp, ain't nothin' it won't cure.
A dollar for a bottle; of course, it's a hundred pure.
While we're here, might's well stock up; we'll soon be on our way.
Only a dollar for a bottle; sech a little price to pay."

Hard earned dollars changed hands, believing in its worth,
caught up in the fevor, the excitement, and the mirth.
Then, in a cloud of dust they watched the wagons disappear,
and went about their daily chores, until another year.

Lillian Arnold Lopez

Sloan's Liniment was one of the products sold at the Medicine Shows in the Tuckerton-New Gretna area. (Photo from Google Images.)

While Sloan's Liniment was advertised for horses, I wouldn't be surprised if some of it's enthusiastic patrons used it for their aches and pains, also. The advertisement mentions "fistula, sweeney, founder, and thrush" which shows the difference in our vocabularies over the decades. To a farmer in the early part of the twentieth century it would refer to maladies of his livestock but, to me, it sounds like the name of a law firm.

Advertisement from Google Images.

It would be great if some of you old timers out there in the Blog-o-Sphere could think back to your childhood for some recollections of the Medicine Shows that visited New Gretna. They would help to flesh out an area of entertainment that we have so little information on. Hopefully, Don Maxwell will have something to say. I suppose a photo would be too much to hope for, but I've got my fingers crossed.

Pete S

PS- Anyone wishing to read more on the old time Medicine Show may want to click on the following link for more information  .   .   .


  1. Pete: Dave got it right about the location and general description of the stage but I hope to provide what I remember about the presentation. The acting was certainly not up to Broadway but was entertaining and played to a large crowd. They were able to interject local color, names and situations in the skits, which were reconized and will received by the audience. They usually had a local sponser such as the Volunteer Fire Co. Candy, linament, soap, perfume and etc. was sold during the intermissions. They took nominations for "Miss New Gretna" who was selected by receiving the most votes. Only valid ballots were those in the candy which they sold. Each nite they announced the leading contentor which ended in large candy sales from the other contestant supporters. Romantic interest played a large part in the candy purchase. The one winner I remember was Miss Dot Steele. I never experienced a tomato throwing incident but this could have happened. The role of the sponsor was to provide security. It certainly was a summer event.

    Clif Brown

  2. I am glad you remembered that Cliff. Let me run this by you. when my Dad was in the CCC Camp up above where you lived, He used to take me to the fights at the Civic Hall. They were between different CCC Camp fellows, They called them Prize fights at that time. I was six years old, so that would have been in 1934.

  3. Dave: Greetings - Sorry I can't help you out regardingg the boxing event in the NG civic hall in the 1934 time period. They probabely happened as it would be competion between different CCC Camps. There was a camp in the Green Bank State Forest as well as Bass River State Forest. I have little or no interest in boxing, this is probabely due to my parents who discouraged fighting of any type.

    Regards - Clif Brown

  4. Cliff, now that you mentioned it, it was the Greenbank CCC that was the opposition that night. Dave