I expected that my recent column about the Ottway Fair (and my personal ignorance that such a thing had ever existed) would generate some reaction.

Did it ever! From people talking to me in the aisles of Walmart to others emailing or calling me, to a neighbor walking into my driveway just yesterday to tell me she had often attended that fair in her childhood years, I’ve come to know the Ottway Fair a bit better.

The real mother-lode of information, though, came when I heard a soft knock on my office door early in the week and found Glenna Casteel standing there with the print-out of a book in her hand. It’s her own book and is all about the Ottway Fair.

The front cover art is the image of a poster promoting the 1956 edition of the fair, held Aug. 20-25 that year.

For some reason, Ottway is spelled “Otway” on that poster. Probably just an oversight or typographical error. It’s forgiveable. When you’ve written as many words as I have, typographical errors become a familiar part of life.

The book, which Glenna hopes to have out and available in weeks to come, starts off with a history of the fair, which took place annually on the grounds of Ottway School (now Ottway Elementary School) for three decades.

Did you know that Ottway School grew out of something called Ottway College? I didn’t. Anyhow, Ottway College “lasted until 1909 when it became an elementary school,” Glenna’s book says. “The property was purchased by the Greene County Board of Education in 1915 under a consolidation program led by Superintendent of Schools Joel Pierce.” In the 1920s it became a high school, eventually to become an elementary school again.

I’m not going to try to summarize more history here and risk stealing thunder from Glenna’s book. But I am going to tell about one rather unexpected and dark aspect of the Ottway Fair that her book covers, that being the death of a nationally known, German-born stunt performer and aerialist named Henry Roland, often styled as Henry Dare-Devil Roland, or even D.D. Roland. Sometimes he called himself “The Human Fly.”

The death happened right there at Ottway, with a crowd watching. In that crowd was Roland’s wife, snapping pictures of her husband’s risky act.

There is some information about Roland on the internet should you care to search it out. The short version of who he was is this, in words quoted from The Greeneville Democrat-Sun of Oct. 5, 1937: Roland had been performing for 21 years, doing “climbing and balancing stunts in some of the largest cities in the world.”

At one time he fell three stories while “free climbing” the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Hitting a canopy on the way down broke his fall sufficiently to save him from potentially fatal injury.

He also climbed, one day before his Ottway appearance, what was then the Brumley building in Greeneville, now the General Morgan Inn. He did this “without any aids, including any safety devices. He walked blindfolded along the edge of the building balancing his wife on his shoulders while she read the Democrat-Sun to him.”

The management of the General Morgan Inn has announced no plans to re-enact that performance.

“The Human Fly” was 43 when he fatefully visited Greeneville and Ottway. He was not destined to grow any older or go to any other communities.

Roland had sometime before added a new twist to his act, which used a sway pole.

He installed a 20-foot pole on top of a 90-foot ladder. Partway up, at 62 feet, a trapeze extended out from the ladder.

His act involved climbing to the top of the sway pole, doing handstands there, then making the pole sway dramatically as he held on. Then, the big moment: Roland would let go of the pole, do forward somersaults through the air, and grab the trapeze to continue his act.

Just another day at the office for the Human Fly.

It was windy at Ottway on Oct. 8, 1937, when Roland readied for his act by thoroughly checking the ladder, pole, trapeze and rigging. He climbed up, did his balancing and swaying before a crowd estimated in the hundreds, then let go for the big drop.

It proved a much bigger drop than planned. The wind moved the trapeze out of his reach, and with his wife shrieking in horror, he plunged to the ground many yards below.

Crowds rushed around, and in the words of the Democrat-Sun’s coverage, were “unable to lift a finger to save his life.”

Roland’s injuries were extensive. His death certificate cited a “broken right femur, broken bones of hands, probably internal injuries, probably fractured skull.” He was rushed to Greeneville from Ottway, but did not survive the journey.

The death of Henry Roland did not destroy the Ottway Fair. It continued another 20 years, ending only when construction on the school grounds made it impossible for the fair to be held one year. After that pause, it simply did not return.

A poem about Roland’s death was written by 17-year-old Julia Gammons, apparently a witness to the tragedy. The poem, originally published in the Democrat-Sun, is published in full in Glenna Casteel’s volume.

Here are some highlights of the 11-verse poem:

Roland was a great stunt man, / Was called “the Human Fly;”/ He’d do some great and daring acts / That’d almost make you cry.

He came to Ottway Fair one day,/ in Greeneville, Tennessee;/ We all were glad to have him there / So famous as was he.

And later:

He stood up in the high trapeze / to do his greatest one; / He said, “This is my very best / If I can put it on.”

He jumped and tried to catch a hold, / But came on tumbling down; / For he had missed the high trapeze / and crashed upon the ground.

The poem goes on a few more verses until the somber final one:

They laid him in the cold, cold ground, /Beneath the hard red clay; / To stay beneath the grassy mound / Until the final day.

For those who enjoy tracking family connections, the Casteel book identifies the poetry-writing Julia Gammons as the daughter of William and Cordie Gammons and the wife of Robert Frank Smith.

Roland was returned to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, for burial.

Cameron Judd is a lifelong Tennessean born and raised in Cookeville, and a Greene County resident since 1982, when he first joined The Greeneville Sun staff. He also is an extensively published author of western and frontier fiction, having worked with several major publishing houses.