What’s Behind Our Name – History of Spill the Milk Canvas



In the Spring of 1948, Al Steele Sr. was working as a machinist at McGill Manufacturing in Valparaiso, Indiana. Earlier that , Al asked for a leave of absence to travel with a carnival in Wisconsin during May through September. Mr. McGill agreed to the absence, and keeping his word Al returned to his position later that year.

With his job secure, Al purchased a ton and a half 1939 Chevrolet truck. He also secured credit for needed lumber and hardware from the Foster Lumber Company for two concessions. One concession was “Spill the Milk”. It was a Knock Down game in which three baseballs were thrown at five stacked leaded milk bottles. The other game was “Pop the Balloon” a dart game. His wife Maytha ran the dart game with nine year-old daughter Mary Ann who blew-up the balloons. Eleven year-old son Al Jr. was the barker for the cork shooting gallery owned by his grandfather, L.E. Steele, who also operated a penny arcade and pony ride on the early Wisconsin route.

The day after Hayes Leonard School let out for the Summer, the family headed north to their first spot – Clintonville, Wisconsin, joining Bowdart Shows. Bowdart Shows were based out of Shawno, Wisconsin.

An important note is that in the late 1940’s almost every town in Wisconsin had a baseball team. Even a small town of 500 had a ball team. When the carnival came to town the ball players would line up to play “Spill the Milk”. On many occasions, the ball players still in their uniforms from the Saturday night town game came to throw balls at the milk bottles.

It quickly became apparent that these ball players, especially the pitchers, threw the balls very hard. When they missed the bottles, the balls tore thorough the canvas on the back of 16 x 16 concession tent.

Al quickly realized he needed a heavy duty canvas back stop. This would take some time to acquire, so in the mean time he placed a 4 x 8 foot panel of 3/4 plywood behind each table of targeted stacked milk bottles.

L.E. Steele had purchased his penny arcade tent from Mr. Bernie Meddelson who owned O’Henry Tent Awning Co. on Clark St in Chicago, Il. Al Sr.asked Bernie to paint a themed “Spill the Milk” back stop for his knock down bottle game. The O’Henry Tent Co. had a reputation for quality products. This is attested to by the fact that this canvas is over 60 years old, has been hit hard by thousands of baseballs, traveled thousands of miles, torn down, rolled up, stored in a barn and is still in the great condition you see today.

The painter at the O’Henry Tent Co. during that time was Fred O. Johnson. Mr. Johnson was from Chicago and worked at O’Henry Tent Co. from 1934 – 1974. The awning company provided show banners to many carnivals and circuses such as Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey. Fred is now known as the Picasso of carnival, side show and circus canvas. His works of art have been auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York.

Steele’s Amusements, the name Al Sr., used for his concession business grew into a traveling carnival consisting of twenty- four rides, forty plus concessions, and numerous side shows. For 28 years, the show winter-quartered on the same property from where the family first traveled to Wisconsin the Summer of 1948. The show played it’s last season of celebrations and county fairs in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin in 1976.

Al Sr. was my grandfather. I was one of seventeen Steele’s that traveled with the carnival. Each year in late Spring, grandmothers, grandfather, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, husbands and wives, nephews and grandchildren left Valparaiso for twenty weeks each Summer to work on Steele’s Amusements Midway.

One Response to What’s Behind Our Name – History of Spill the Milk Canvas

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