It would be hard to imagine the Town of Easton without a firehouse at the intersection of Sport Hill and Center Road. Perhaps just as difficult to imagine would be the absence of the annual Fireman’s Carnival during those hot and humid Connecticut evenings in late July and early August. But for eight years between 1948 and 1956 the carnival grounds sat dark as the Easton Volunteer Fire Company Number One struggled to raise enough money to survive.
Founded in 1921, members of the fire company first talked about holding a carnival to raise funds during a meeting on August 7, 1922. It was well known that other fire companies held multiple day events that included the sale of food, various forms of entertainment, rides for the kids – both young and old – and of course, those wonderful games of chance. It was the multiple games of chance that usually bought in the most cash and kept participants spending their money at the event until closing.
The company’s first carnival was held on September 6th, 7th, and 8th in 1923. The location was on Sport Hill Road alongside a tea room known as the Yellow Bowl that was owned and operated by member Charles Gilbert. The event was a rousing success, with the company clearing in excess of $1,000 after expenses – quite a hefty sum for a fire company that hadn’t yet purchased its first fire fighting vehicle!
The Easton Fireman’s Carnival soon became a regular event. After the firehouse was built in 1925, C.B. Tammany allowed the company to use a field next to his home and directly across the street from the recently built firehouse. In 1937, Tammany sold that land to the company and it became the permanent home to the then annual carnival.
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 budget requests 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. And thankfully, it’s been going on ever since! The town now provides more financial support for the volunteer fire company, but it’s the spirit of goodwill and the sense of community that make the carnival the success and the tradition that it is today.