Between The Bookends

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Circus & Carnival Tractors: 1930-2001 Photo Archive

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The secret lives of circus tractors

Let's first be upfront about the downside when one parts with $29.95 for Circus & Carnival Tractors: 1930-2001 Photo Archive. To start with, there are only five pages of text in the book's entire 126 pages. Almost half of those five pages are filled with definitions of 32 items unique to industrial tractors, and circus and carnival tractors in particular. The remaining pages each display a large photograph, which lends to the book's logical horizontal format. All the photos are black-and-white, not the vivid colors most expect from a 'tractor' book. A coffee table show book this one isn't.

O.K., to be candid, some of the photographs aren't really that great. A few lack sharpness and clarity. Yet, there's a valid reason for both this and also the black-and-white only pictures, which will be discussed shortly.

Then there's the book's price. Although it's printed on good paper stock that makes the most of each photograph, the only color photograph is on the front of this soft-cover book. Being objective, the book would seem much more marketable if it were sold for half the price.

Beyond all that, though, those interested in the theme will enjoy this second book by Bill Rhodes. Now 75 years young, circuses and carnivals have been his life-long hobby. As a youngster in the 1940s, he carried chairs and did other odd jobs for a free ticket when the circus came to town. Almost from the beginning, he carried a camera on his brief forays into circusland. That first box camera explains the less-than-optimum quality of a few of the book's early photographs and the reason for the black-and-white images. Later, he used better camera equipment, which greatly improved his photographs.

'I wanted the book to get across some of the flavor and background of the circus and carnival,' Rhodes explains. 'This includes how they switched from using horses and elephants to mechanizing with tractors for power like everyone else.' Sure enough, several of the book's photographs show horses and elephants doing the grunt work. It's also interesting to note how the tractors' capabilities and appearance evolve through the book.

Every photograph is explained in a lengthy cutline below each picture. Details about tractor makes and models, plus information about horsepower or special equipment, makes for some interesting reading. Here are a few of the key points in the book:

At the turn of the last century, a large circus might employ several hundred draft horses and mules. Gray Percherons were popular since they were regarded as light eaters and good in the summer sun. One circus utilized draft horses until 1949.

The Fordson was the first tractor the industry accepted, followed by International Harvester Farmall tractors. However, tractors were rarely utilized until the rubber pneumatic tire came along in the 1930s since tracks and steel wheels were so rough on pavement.

In addition to loading and unloading work, tractor hydraulic systems helped in the almost endless job of driving and extracting circus tent stakes.

Industrial tractors were used almost exclusively until recent years. They usually differed from typical farm tractors by offering faster speeds, much more effective brakes, seats positioned higher and further forward and generally used foot-engaged clutches rather than hand clutches.

Tractor books have covered just about every subject and brand possible. What sets this one apart, in addition to its never-before-explored area of coverage, is the obvious life-long interest of the author-photographer. FC

- Chester Peterson Jr. is a full-time writer-photographer. He's had 10 non-fiction books published, including seven 'tractor' books. His articles have appeared in 160 different publications in six countries.

Every photograph is explained in a lengthy cutline below each picture. Details about tractor makes and models, plus information about horsepower or special equipment, makes for some interesting reading.