Carey Forrest “Bill” Elton Part One


Some time ago, the Messenger published a photo of the Gadsden National Guard band at Camp Blanding in Florida, which is located west of Jacksonville. The photo also appeared on Facebook some time back. Bill Elton was one of the few people who had his own car at Blanding, so he would sometimes loan the car to some of the band members who had a weekend pass to Gadsden.

Robert Elton stated that he was just a little guy back then, but he remember George Griffin, who operated a barbershop on Broad Street near the shoe repair shop and Snellgrove Drug Store. Robert also remembered Mr. Lampe, who had a radio repair shop in Glencoe, and a Mr. Puckett, who had a wholesale business on Locust Street.

Robert also stated that Rip Reagan comes from a military family (as readers will find in the upcoming article about the yearbook Robert donated to the Etowah Historical Society). Rip can tell one about his family’s involvement in the National Guard and regular army, as well as his years playing in dance bands around Gadsden and Etowah County. He has always been a colorful character.

This week The Vagabond is going to write a little known history of the local Alabama 167th Infantry, the one that’s called the Rainbow Division. Rainbow Drive and Rainbow City were named for that unit.

Robert Elton, Carey Forrest “Bill” Elton’s son, donated a yearbook to the Etowah Historical Society. The book was all about the Alabama 167th Infantry during 1938. We will be showing this yearbook and more about Bill Elton the next few weeks.

Robert Elton writes:

“I don’t pretend to be an historian. However, I have come to appreciate the research one has to do to get an accurate picture of the past. What you read here is information gleaned from an old audio recording of ‘Elton History’ spoken by Dad’s younger brother, along with scant information my mother left me in a journal she kept, and the memories my brother and two sisters passed along to me. My own recollections of dad’s conversations about ‘the good ole days’ may have been damaged in shipment, so to speak.

“In the late 1800’s, Albert Elton left home in Montgomery City, Missouri, and traveled the back trails of the Midwest seeking his fortune. Albert played the fiddle and was a pretty good clog dancer, so for a while, he was able to use these talents in a traveling show of some kind.

“Later Albert married Mary Julia Adams. Albert and Julia eventually brought four boys and one girl into the world. Next to the youngest was my dad, Carey Forrest Elton.

“Albert decided to move his family to Oklahoma about 1902 and take part in the land rush, managing to homestead several acres for timber farming. It was in Oklahoma that Carey, a young teenager by then, found work as a cowpuncher for a cattle king. Actually, Carey was a cook for the rest of the cowboys, driving a chuck wagon and following the cattle drives through Oklahoma.

“Granddad later moved back to Missouri to start up a saw mill. Carey went back with him, bringing along a wild pony that he gave to his younger brother. Carey at 16 was interested in other things, like music. He learned to play a pump organ when he was in the second grade at school. Later, Carey would sneak an older brother’s cornet and learn to play it as well.

“Carey’s dreams included joining a circus of some kind and playing in the circus band. He managed to get work with the Bauscher Carnival Company’s band. He drifted from one show to another until he found a job with the Wallace-Hagenback Circus. Carey played the steam calliope, trombone and the bassoon in their parades, just about any instrument that was needed in the band.

“Dad never liked the name Carey Forrest, so the show people called him Bill. After three years with Wallace Hagenback, in about 1909 dad got on with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show. A roster for the 1911 season has dad’s name listed under ‘Miscellaneous.’ He was a musician, a ticket man, a cook and whatever else was needed short of riding a horse in the show.

“Dad collected over 200 postcard pictures and photos and other promotional materials from his 101 Ranch Wild West Show experience and other circus shows.

“In dad’s final year with the 101, the Miller brothers decided to take the show to South America. They got down to Argentina, where they were quarantined.

“Dad developed smallpox, and the show was almost bankrupt. Dad was flat broke, so he wired home for money. His younger brother was never able to do anything with his gift pony, so he sold it and sent dad the money, which finally got him back home.

“After that experience, Dad played with some tent theaters doing vaudeville shows. He was the advance man for Kell’s Comedians, Brunk’s Comedians and others.

“Dad eventually paired up with a hot trumpet player named Harry McGowen. Dad, Harry, and Harry’s brother Marlin started a vaudeville tent show of their own. It folded in Arkansas when it kept raining and eventually flooded them out.

“Dad went home again to Missouri and Harry went to Alabama, where he got a job directing a textile mill band. Dad and Harry remained best friends, and when Dad continued to look for work, Harry invited him to Alabama where another textile town was looking for a band director.

“The woman who was to be his wife and my mother was playing violin in Harry’s band. The rest is history.”

Stay tune next week as we continue our story

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