The Vagabond: Tightrope walkers and daredevils in Gadsden

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By Danny Crownover

Part I

Back in the 1880’s and early 1890’s, Gadsden was annually entertained by professional tightrope walkers – some of them were among the best in the business -who performed in the vicinity of the Etowah County Courthouse downtown and drew large crowds.

The performers stretched their ropes across Broad and Fourth streets. Some walked from the second story of the courthouse to what became known as the Pioneer Building and then to the Sibert Building where Grant’s store once was located. Another route was across Fourth Street from the Sibert Building to the Herzberg Building.

It was advertised that one of the tightrope walkers would walk blindfolded in a cheese hoop. After pulling off his coat and trousers and dropping his balancing pole, the performer ran across on the swaying rope without any balancing apparatus except for his hands. Just before doing their stunts, the walkers moved amongst the crowd, hat in hand, to take up a collection. They usually announced the amount they secured, which was usually between $6 and $7.

Oddly enough, the performers were usually nearing middle age. No young performers were ever seen in this area except in a circus. What made the acts go over big was the fact that they walked from high places, much higher than the tightwire walkers of the circus.

A daring amateur once rigged up a wire for a slide across the gorge across Noccalula Falls. He anchored one end high up in a tall pine tree and the other end to a small tree on the opposite side of the gorge. He fastened a pulley to one foot and slid head down across the deep depression just south of the cataract, firing a pistol as he glided along. The performer said afterward that he did the stunt in order to raise money to hospitalize his very sick wife.

Another tightrope performer was a professional who stretched a wire across and walked across the Black Creek just above where it takes the plunge to the 90 feet below. He pushed his wife across in a wheelbarrow.

Back in the 1890’s, a 250-pound man from Sand Mountain bet $25 with a friend that he could jump off the L&N Railroad Bridge. When the time came for the man to put up or shut up, the man crossed the bridge crossed and prepared to jump off the ramp on the east side of the Coosa River, a distance of about 35 feet. The man leaped into the tip of a 30-foot high tree, which bent gently to the ground under his enormous weight and the man landed safely.

A blacksmith back in the 1890’s who fell off the bridge and lived to tell the tale. The man was in the habit of getting drunk, and late one afternoon he started to his home in East Gadsden when he was hardly able to walk. For some reason he could not explain, the drunkard sat down on one of the steel braces of the bridge. He suddenly fell headfirst into the river and hit the water on the side of his face about 15 feet from the bank. Although stunned and badly hurt, the drunkard managed to wade out. The side of his face that struck the water was a solid blood blister and both of his eyes were black and blue. The drunkard was back at work in a few days.

One of the most interesting boys in Gadsden around 1910 was Ezra Pike, the son of Sheriff Bailus M. Pike and member of one of the oldest and best-known families in Etowah county.

Ezra was a nosy kid who was always around when big things happened, or some stage show, or circus came to town. Unknown to his family and most of his acquaintances, Ezra was a bit stage struck. That fact came out in the open when C.W. Par brought his theatre repertoire company to Gadsden for a week under a big tent. Ezra was on hand to assist in all sorts of jobs such as erecting and policing the big top, and during all that time he wished to be a part in the show itself.

Ezra’s first stage appearance was for amateur night to perform a bit of comedy. He started out by telling a joke, but he forgot the punch line, so he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and read his piece. That performance fell flat, but Ezra received considerable applause because his clumsy effort was downright funny. He did not lose heart and was as determined as ever to get into the limelight.

Ezra was a friend to Wiley S. Smith, a reporter for The Gadsden Evening Journal and later manager of Hearst’s International News Bureau in New York. Wiley sent Ezra to Fort Payne to witness a legal hanging, which he did and telephoned in what he saw and heard. Reporting brought the news that Ezra had taken the place of Locklear, the greatest stunt pilot of his time who was killed with Milton Elliott of Gadsden while performing stunts for a movie company in Hollywood. Ezra soon began to attract national attention by his daring and skill.

Sam C. Harrell, an experienced aviator, was Ezra’s pilot, and the duo staged a series of stunts during a fair. Ezra climbed around on the low-flying plane with apparent ease and visible grace. Standing erect on top of the wings without handhold, he sent many thrills into the hearts of those below. Afterward Ezra performed on a ladder suspended from the plane in regular circus acrobatic fashion.

The final act in Ezra’s airplane daredevil stunts was a leap from a height of 2,000 feet. Ezra’s parachute shot 100 feet through open space, and there was a breathless silence and a union of shrieks of excitement until the big umbrella suddenly shot open and its downward plunge was checked. Ezra landed safely on a golf course.

Ezra later barnstormed all over the nation and performed at many county and state fairs. All of his friends were pleased that he had achieved success in his ambition to perform before large audiences.

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