The Easton Volunteer Fire Company Carnival – A Multi-Generation Love Affair

This year marks a rare and sad occasion. No fireman’s carnival. The money the carnival generates will be sadly missed, but the actual event will be missed even more. As in so many small towns across America, there is usually at least one annual community event that the entire town rallies behind and eagerly awaits. Since its inception in 1923, that event has been the EVFD Carnival.

With only two extended interruptions since 1923, the Easton Volunteer Fire Company No.1 has held its carnival practically every year in either July or August. This has been a family affair, not only for the patrons, but for the volunteers who put it together and run it. It has not only been multi-generational, but often included multiple members of the same household. Below is a condensed history of the carnival.

From the beginning in 1921, the Easton Volunteer Fire Company has been an all-volunteer, self-funded fire department. Beginning with fourteen community minded men, the company grew its ranks rapidly during its first few years. But those men would soon find out that the town government had little appetite for offering their group any financial support. It would take over twenty years before the town finally agreed to pay to have first one man, and then two, on duty to drive the volunteer company supplied fire trucks to a fire as soon as it was called in. The Easton volunteers were on their own when to came to raising the funds to cover absolutely everything from building a firehouse to purchasing fire-fighting equipment and trucks.

Luckily for the town, those men were up to the challenge.

The very first Easton Volunteer Firemen Company Carnival was held in 1923 in the field at the Yellow Bowl Tea Room on Sport Hill Road – east side of the highway a little south of the intersection with Marsh Road.

The very first Easton Volunteer Fire Company No.1 carnival took place on the 6th, 7th, & 8th of September 1923. The company didn’t yet own a fire truck, much less possess a firehouse. That first carnival was held at the Yellow Bowl Tea Room on the eastern side of Sport Hill Road. There was food and dancing, and the games of chance had hand-crafted blankets and linens as prizes. It was deemed a great success, clearing the recently formed volunteer company close to $1,000. Those funds were soon put to good use when the fire company purchased its first “fire truck”, an aging Oldsmobile roadster that had been converted into a chemical car with twin 35-gallon soda and acid tanks used to fight fires.

The 1925 carnival more than doubled the cash intake with over $2,000 in net revenue, and at the last minute, the event has held over for an additional day on Monday. The grand prize in the raffle was a “Complete Radio Set.” While that may not sound like much in today’s world, in the mid-1920’s a premium radio would have been the equivalent of a total home entertainment system. Very few middle-class families would have been able to afford such a luxury. The revenue from that year’s carnival was used to install a central heating system in the new firehouse.

In 1927, the event began on Saturday, July 16 and then continued Wednesday through Saturday the following week. By then the carnival was being held on Ed Tammany’s field across the street from the new firehouse on Sport Hill Road. Bingo was the main game of chance, with a candy wheel and blanket booth providing additional revenue. Food offerings consisted of hot dogs, soft drinks, and ice cream. There was even an orchestra to provide music for dancing.

In 1933, the Siren Aide Club was officially organized, and with the help of the ladies, food sales soared at the carnival with the addition of freshly cooked dishes and desserts. During the Depression, the carnival became an important diversion for the residents of Easton, and it grew into a weeklong celebration that included events outside of the nightly games of chance. One of those new events was Donkey Baseball, where the players had to ride donkeys to round the bases. It was good fun that brought out half of the town to view their volunteer firemen attempting to coerce the rented animals to follow their commands.

Steve Kochiss struggling with his donkey in the 1938 Donkey Baseball game.

In 1937, the fire company secured the ½ acre field for the carnival when it paid the Tammany family $3,000 to complete the purchase. After 13 years, the carnival finally had a permanent venue.

With most of the younger members away serving in the military, the carnival grounds sat dark during World War II.

Following WWII, the carnival resumed. It was bigger and better than ever, and the grand prize to be raffled-off on the final night had been upgraded to a brand-new automobile! In 1948, the lucky winner drove home a new 1949 Ford. The excitement generated by the possibility of winning a new car made the “Car Tent” a regular feature that has endured for the past 75 years.

By the time the 1948 carnival’s lights were turned off and the tents taken down for another year, the company had cleared a whopping $12,000. Things were looking good and the volunteers had a rather impressive bank account. But not everyone in Easton was quite so pleased. Some were concerned the firemen were taking in too much money and not spending enough of it for new equipment. Some others were not happy with all those games of chance. Gambling, after all, was generally frowned upon 70 years ago.

By early 1949, Connecticut had enacted several new laws that gave the State’s Attorney General the power to regulate, and even ban, games of chance. Ridgefield’s annual fireman’s carnival was held in June, a month before Easton’s. The State Police staged a raid and shut it down. Those spinning wheels of chance and the raffle tickets nearly every resident cheerfully purchased for a chance to win that shiny new automobile were then deemed illegal. As a result, the men of the Easton fire company reluctantly called their own carnival off and returned the car they had hoped to award to some lucky winner back to the dealer who had supplied it.

With the carnival grounds dark and deserted, the annual revenue fell. Other means were tried to raise capital, but they fell far short. The company turned to the town government for financial help, but town leaders, who were still reluctant to even consider building a much-needed high school, trimmed the company’s request to the bone. It was the women of the company’s Siren Aide who helped the company the most through the lean years of the early 1950’s. They held bake sales and hosted dinners to raise money. The fire company held on, but barely.

And then came 1956. The State of Connecticut finally repealed its ban on games of chance for volunteer and charitable organizations. After 8 long and extremely difficult years, the fire company could finally resume its annual carnival.

The 1957 carnival generated income from the Car Tent, the Bicycle Tent, and always popular Bingo Tent. The prizes in the other tents had increased in value as many of Easton’s residents were owners of businesses in nearby Bridgeport, Fairfield, and Westport. Many of those business owners simply donated prizes in the spirit of support for the fire company that was almost 100% self-sufficient in every aspect except for covering the salaries of the paid firefighters who manned the station and drove the trucks. In 1957, there were games of chance at booths where electrical appliances, dolls, toys, picnic sets & dishes, groceries, and luggage & cameras could be won.

Toys were always popular prizes no matter what the year was.

If you lived in Easton during the 1950’s and 1960’s, you no doubt remember this event as a true community effort.

In 1960, the ladies of the Siren Aide met every morning at 9:00 AM for seven days running in order to put on an incredible dinner each and every night the event ran. We’re not talking about just hot dogs, hamburgers, and fries. We’re talking about a different, full-blown dinner each night!

Below is a synopsis of Catherine Ellison Merillat’s August 7th article in the Bridgeport Sunday Post:

One week’s worth of groceries: 907 pounds of meat; 10 crates of lettuce; 8 bushels of tomatoes; 1,000 hand-made meatballs; 80 pounds of spaghetti. And of course, 35 bushels of fresh peaches destined for consumption as part of the best darn peach shortcake this side of heaven!

There was always a baked ham night. A corned beef and cabbage dinner. Open-faced hot roast beef sandwiches smothered in home-made gravy mid-week. Spaghetti and meatballs were so popular the night that they were served that they usually ran out. Friday night saw 140 quarts of hand-made Manhattan clam chowder consumed by closing, and as usual, the grand finale on Saturday evening was a full roast beef dinner. Every dinner was sold-out on every night as the people of Easton came together to support their volunteer fire department and visit with their friends and neighbors.

But the pièce de résistance of every evening was the peach shortcake! It sold out every night. Light homemade buttery biscuits piled high with freshly cut peaches smothered in juice and then topped with hand-made whipped cream. If you ever ate it, you remember it like it was yesterday.

Every single dish was made by the women of the Siren Aide. With the exception of the meat, their organization bought and paid for every ingredient used. The firemen paid for the meat in exchange for a free dinner every night of the carnival.

One very special lady, Mrs. Ethel Sondergaard, purchased and brewed 144 pounds of coffee all by herself. She did it every year for as long as most people could remember. Two urns went non-stop for about seven hours every night for the entire seven day run of the carnival.

And the proceeds from all this hard work? Where did they go? The Siren Aide outfitted the entire kitchen at the firehouse. Professional grade stove, giant refrigerator, and freezer. They purchased tables and chairs, made the drapes, and cleaned the firehouse recreation area regularly. And with the monies left-over, they made a generous annual contribution towards the building of a new firehouse.

The 1960’s and 1970’s saw the addition of motorized rides and more booths full of prizes. The 1977 carnival had 4 rides – 2 for kids and 2 for adults. The bicycle booth remained popular, as did the candy wheel. The radio and television booth offered the chance to spin for a color television as its top attraction. There was even a Jersey cigarette wheel, where winners received cigarettes as prizes!

A Jersey Cigarette Wheel like this one was popular with the adults. It’s difficult to imagine this happening today.

During those years, there was a move away from the nightly dinners to a more casual approach to feeding the patrons of the carnival – a larger food tent that provided the now traditional fast-food fare. The Siren Aides continued their money raising efforts by concentrating more on desserts. They had over 150 frozen pies ready to bake fresh daily and serve each of the nights during the event. The carnival’s famous peach shortcake was served to hungry patrons every evening. The carnival concluded on Saturday night, when some lucky ticket holder was awarded the top prize of a new Buick Century.

So, this year, for the first time in 63 years, the carnival grounds will be quiet due to the global pandemic that has disrupted practically everyone’s life. While the company will still raffle off a new automobile or pickup truck, the citizens of Easton won’t be able to visit with the neighbors, enjoy playing one of those games of chance, or take a spin on the Ferris wheel. Perhaps that will make next year’s carnival that much more special – and perhaps that much more appreciated. But while we can’t attend the carnival this year, we can certainly show our support to the men and women who are carrying on the traditions that date back to our great-grandfathers. Please be generous and please write them a check. Checks can made out to the Easton Volunteer Fire Company and sent to 1 Center Road, Easton, CT 06612.