A summertime treat … the circus

5-22-80circus interocean

By Sandy Vasko

I’m not sure how many of you remember the circus, I mean the real one, not one inside a building, one underneath the “big top.”

When I was a little girl, I was getting fitted for a flower girl dress to wear at my Uncle’s wedding. I was fidgeting and fussing and making a general pain of myself. Then my Uncle came in and said if I was good, he had a big surprise for me. I demanded to know what the surprise was before I made the deal. It was TICKETS TO THE CIRCUS!!! I stood like a statue the rest of the time.

Even as an adult, I saw Gunther Gebel Williams standing on the back of an elephant with a white tiger wrapped around his neck. The harmony of man and animal was thrilling to me. I know many will disagree. However, today’s topic is the circus. Hop on to your elephant and come with me:

The first reference I find to a circus come from October of 1861 in Wilmington: “Circus and Menagerie – the combined Circus and Menagerie of Messrs. Nathan & Mabie, as will be seen by advertisement in another column, will be exhibited in this town on Tuesday next, the 15th instant. Of course, everybody will turn out to see the “animiles,” and the elephant will be on hand if he can get someone to pack his trunk.”

And in 1868, “Yankee Robinson’s Circus – As will be seen by the three columns advertisement on this page, Yankee Robinson’s big show is to be in town on Monday next. Since his establishment was here two years ago, Mr. Robinson has got rid of all his old wagons and trappings, and makes a fresh start with everything new. He has spared no expense in making everything of the most elegant and attractive description, and is drawing overflowing houses wherever he goes. It has been some time since our citizens have had a show under canvass, and we shall expect to see Wilmington alive with our neighbors from the surrounding country on Monday next.”

In 1872, Memorial Day in Wilmington was celebrated with a circus on the Island: “Our readers should bear in Mind that this company has the largest and oldest elephant in the world; the great lion tamer, Forepaugh; the 6 ladies with a trained horse jumping the rope: double and single trapeze, etc. They have also Nat. Rogers and his two wonderful children; the learned dogs, goats and monkeys; the man fish; the huge rhinoceros, that won’t be tamed the multitude of rare animals, birds and curiosities; also see the grand procession in parade, with 4-paw in his open den of lions. Md”lle Leona Dare will ride on tap of a cage, with a Bengal tiger and a Russian bear, which will be a sight worth traveling miles to see. Let everybody turn out, have a holiday and see these four big shows for fifty cents ($13).”

It must have been a fine sight when the circus came to town, most often, in a grand parade through the center of town, with all the performers in costume, the animals in cages, and the jugglers and clowns entertaining the crowd. In 1879, Barnum came to Joliet.

“The grand parade yesterday morning, although confined to a certain section of the city, was so much in advance of the average ‘turn-out’ that the desire to see Barnum’s great show was intensified in all who saw the brilliant procession.

“The museum of curiosities received its full share of attention; the menagerie, with its herds of elephants, the graceful giraffe, the ponderous rhinoceros, and animals representing every clime and country proved attractive; and, as for the circus exhibition, it is enough to say in praise that it met fully the high expectations of the audience.

“The equestrianium is a specially attractive feature. Miss Emma Lake, in English hunting habit gives a wonderful exhibition of control over a beautiful horse of marvelous intelligence. Miss Katie Stoke is one of the best of bare back riders. The act of Mlle. Linda Jeal, in which she makes a series of brilliant exhibitions, closing with the leap through circles of living flame, is very exciting. Ad for Mme. Elsie Dockrill, no one could deny her the title of queen of the arena after seeing her matchless riding.

“A company of Egyptian jugglers perform some wonderful tricks; the Herbert Brother show themselves most adept athletes; the Miaco brothers and other clowns make plenty of fun.”

The heyday of circuses in Will County was the 1890s. Joliet was rarely without a circus the whole summer long. In 1894 we read, “Washburn’s circus coming. This show will exhibit at Joliet, Friday, May 11. Among the many attractions seen under the vast canvas, Cupid, the baby elephant, we mention in particular. He belongs to the menagerie part of the show, which, taken in connection with the circus, makes up the greatest exhibition traveling in the middle states.

“Manager Washburn has made a very wide departure in the matter of circus exhibitions. This season in addition to his rings, three companies and performances all progressing at the same time, he has added an immense hippodrome racing track, with a large and costly stock of imported thoroughbreds and English male and female race riders. There will be presented at each exhibition of the circus, chariot races, after the style of the ancient Roman Hippodrome, and real running and trotting races, the best horse to win.

“In addition to these there will be trials of speed between elephants, camels, donkeys, mules and other animals. These trials combine all the commendable features of the best race courses in America, with far more novelty and excitement than is seen on such occasions, while they are entirely free from all the reprehensible features, such as betting, pool selling, etc. which have long prevented many Christian people and gentlemen and ladies from countenancing by their presence the otherwise grand and exhilarating sports of the race track. The approbation and amusement of visitors at the exhibition is the only reward and excitement allowed at these races. Show grounds, corner of Cass and Manning avenue.”

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