The following family history was written by Joshua Salmans of Greenville, SC.
If given the opportunity to meet anyone from the American past, some may be attracted to the likes of Presidents George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Though I do not deny the extravagant appeal of being present as Washington crossed the Delaware River or Lincoln recited the Gettysburg Address, my desire to meet my great-great grandfather Harry “Pop” Kramer overshadows all others from history.
He was a vaudeville trick-cyclist who performed along the Appalachian mountains. He designed and fabricated his own trick bicycles and unicycles. He could ride his bicycle while standing on his head or jump rope while riding on a buggy wheel. Pop also built a bicycle on which the front wheel could be detached from the rear while in motion. But most importantly, he could hold the attention of an audience. My cousin Cheri boasts, “Pop dazzled people with his dare devil antics.”
In Spring 2010, my professor of American Folklore at North Greenville University assigned a family-research project that gave me the opportunity to meet my great-great grandfather. As I perused old photographs of Pop Kramer, I realized that I had his smile, his face and beard.
On a small family farm in Alexandria, VA, Frederick and Joanna Kramer gave birth to Harry Henry Kramer on January 1, 1875. Frederick was a hard-working farmer and maintained a strict discipline with all of his children.
At the age of twelve, Harry became intrigued by the trick cycling he saw at a circus in town. When he obtained his first bicycle, he anticipated his father’s disapproval and hid it from his father. He learned various tricks from a circus friend over a period of a few years and set out on his own without his father’s knowledge in 1892.
He perfected his stunts and traveled from town to town performing a forty-five minute routine. Frederick only forgave his son after learning how much income Harry had earned during his travels. Harry performed for various circuses, theaters, carnivals, street fairs and county fairs. By the time he was married and had his first child, he had performed routines in every state east of the Mississippi River.
Before the days of radio and television, performances like Pop’s were the predominant form of entertainment among the town folk along the Appalachian mountains. Pop participated in a popular form of entertainment called vaudeville. The term vaudeville became a commonly used coinage for American variety entertainment after the “Sargent’s Great Vaudeville Company” formed in 1871.
Vaudeville entertainment was extremely popular after the Civil War because of the increase of leisure time and white-collar jobs. It included acrobatics, comedy, dance routines, and circuses that travelled from city to city. Entertainers performed in circuses, music halls, riverboats, town halls, amusement parks, and burlesque halls.
Industrialization and new technologies allowed vaudeville entertainers to standardize and professionalize American popular entertainment. This type of entertainment became big business during the late nineteenth century.
When Pop’s first wife Jennie Toye died in 1910 because of an unknown illness, he was left with four children in his care. Shortly after his wife’s death, he moved to Asheville, NC because it had a better climate for his youngest child, who had asthmatic problems. Pop moved to Hendersonville and set up an automobile and bicycle repair garage to earn money while he was not performing.
He remarried in 1917 to Adell Thompson from Hendersonville. He and Adell also had four children together. They later moved to Chick Springs, SC, to start a travel lodge in 1923. Adell was murdered by a disgruntled renter on December 5, 1930. Though he was fifty-five years old, Pop continued to perform on the road in order to afford his children’s education.
After the children were grown, he moved to Travellers Rest, SC to settle down. He continued to do performances during the summer months until he had an accident on a bicycle in 1959. The accident effectively ended his performing career. He never regained his health and died of pneumonia later that year.
Pop Kramer’s performances made entertainment a community effort. Pop was a skilled showman and knew how to draw audiences out from their mundane life to experience a good show in their own neighborhood. In his older years, he lamented the idea that radio and television could take us away from socializing together. Often, while watching a movie or perusing websites I’ll think about my Pop. I can see him outside my window beckoning me to set the modern day distractions aside, and join him.
Sources: “The Life of Harry Kramer,” by William Kramer, n.p., n.d.
“Vaudeville! A Dazzling Display of Heterogeneous Splendor,” Vaudeville! University of Virginia, 2002, online at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA02/easton/vaudeville/vaudevillemain.html