Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” January 2011.
Every Memory a Door
By Lauren Coodley
Every memory is a door into the past. Andrew Clerici offers this remembrance of being a child in Napa when the circus trains came to town:
“I used to go to the Depot in the morning and wait for the train. They would unload and set up for the 2 o’clock show and then another show in the evening They also had a little parade of animals through town about noon to advertise that they were there.. By eight the next morning they were gone …everything was clean and you could not tell they had ever been here.”
Clerici remembers that the Depot was at Fourth and Soscol. The circus train would enter town on the tracks of the Napa Valley Rail Road (NVRR), built from the head of navigation in the Napa River, in 1864. The route ran from Skaggs Island all the way to Calistoga. California Pacific purchased the NVRR in 1869; Southern Pacific bought Cal-Pacific in 1885, and operated passenger service to Calistoga until 1929. Freight trains would continue their runs into the 1980s.
In the Thirties, businesses such as the Napa Glove Company already employed hundreds of Napans when Julian Weidler brought Rough Rider north from San Francisco in l936 and built his clothing factory between the river and the Depot on land donated by the Chamber of Commerce. Napa High taught girls to operate the power sewing machines. Once hired, they became proud members of the United Ladies Garment Workers Union. Raw materials were delivered by steamboat to the factory, fashioned into shirts, pants and skirts, loaded onto freight cars, and sent across the country.
Across the river, Sawyer Tannery developed new kinds of baseball and softball mitts. Wayne Taylor describes his childhood on Pine Street near the tannery:
“I recall going to a side door of the building on a warm summer day and getting free leather scraps from a kindly gentleman employee whose machine was close by. A leather scrap combined with rubber strap cut from an old auto inner tube formed the action (parts for a slingshot)! Of course this all started with a forked piece of wood trimmed from a tree. Now we had a neat toy for free! Several of the neighborhood kids would then compete to see who had the best accuracy in hitting tin cans with our homemade slingshots.”
Peter Manasse remembers the tannery whistle blowing every day at seven, one, and four, the barges coming up the river bringing diesel fuel for their boiler, and the rawhides arriving by freight train. He would drive a big flatbed truck across the Third Street Bridge to pick them up at the train depot. Manasse says “Most people did work at the tannery in high school or grammar school.” Napa was so small with just over 6,000 people. “If I drove my parents’ car too fast downtown, a police officer would call them.”
In 1930, Dave Cavagnaro organized the first Italian-Catholic Federation convention and Napa’s firefighter parade. Cavagnaro, son of Italian immigrants, had arrived in Napa as a baby in l883. He had been fascinated with what he could see, hear and smell of the circus ever since Al Barnes and the elephants paraded past his front door in l9l8. Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse was born in Canada in 1862, and ran his circus until 1929. His elephant parade included ten Asian elephants, among them the bulls Tusko, Black Diamond, and Vance. They must have been a magnificent sight as they were taken off at the train depot and paraded through the quiet town.
When Cavagnaro married, he and wife Nellie ran the Brooklyn Hotel at Third and Soscol, the gathering place for the Italian-American community. Dave tended bar, sang, and played his concertina. He, Nellie, and kids Anita, Ray and Robert lived upstairs. They also rented rooms to single Italian men working on the railroad.
In 1933, cowboy movie star Tom Mix began touring with The Tom Mix Roundup, which included two Liberty horses and the Ward sisters’ aerial act. By 1934, the Tom Mix Circus was traveling with a cast of up to 50 performers, including a twelve piece band. On April 18, 1935, Cavagnaro hosted a dinner at his hotel for the all the performers from Mix’s circus. But, in 1938, the Tom Mix Circus folded in the middle of the Great Depression.
That very year, when Dave Cavagnaro was 58 years old, he decided to set aside 12 weeks of every year to travel with Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey or the Clyde Beatty Circus. In a family history, Martin Mini writes:
“He pitched hay, ran errands, helped in the front office, sold tickets, collected tickets, unloaded animals, set up and tore down tents, carried water to the animals…acted as a booking agent, functioned as an advance man and a roustabout.”
The Ringling Brothers Circus traveled from town to town in small caravans led by animals until it became so large that it required a train. Setting aside the travel restrictions of World War II, President Roosevelt made a special declaration that allowed circuses to use the rail system.
At age 18, Clyde Beatty left the family farm in Ohio on a one day “city visit” to see a real circus. In l92l he left his life on the farm for good and began working for the circus as an animal groom. By his second year on the road, Clyde was assigned a small polar bear act to train for the show. Acclaimed for his expertise with animals, by 1944 he formed his own Clyde Beatty Circus.
In 1955 Dave Cavagnero lost his wife Nellie. That year, Cathy Mathews was six years old, and her mother Lucille brought her to see the Clyde Beatty Circus at the Napa Fairgrounds. Cathy remembers: “The trapeze artists came out in those big showy costumes. I was very impressed. Clyde Beatty had this whip that he snapped in the air at the lions and tigers…the smells of sawdust, peanuts and popcorn.” Dave Cavagnero must have been working backstage, and Andrew Clerici might have brought his own children to the Big Top that day.
In the Fifties, Rough Rider was still flourishing, shipping American made clothing to people all over the country. Sawyer tannery was still selling baseball mitts, although as Japan began competing with American manufacturers Sawyers was forced to switch to making shoe leather. Pete Manasse would work at Sawyer’s until cheap imports began destroying the American leather industry a quarter century later. All of these people were alive here, together in the Fifties, in a town that was by then home to 14,000 souls, some of them surviving long enough to find their names in this very story. The circus trains are gone. and today, Ringling Brothers performs once a year in Oakland or Sacramento.