July 1994

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When Circuses Came

to Honeoye Falls


Paul S. Worboys

They came by wagon over rutted dirt roads. They came by rail in specially-designed trains. They came over macadam highways in mammoth trailer trucks. And people came from miles around to witness their entrance and marvel at their merriment. The steady heartbeat of life in rural and small town America realized a quickened pulse when visited by a segment of living Americana, the traveling circus.

In the mid-19th century, when Honeoye Falls had developed beyond the status of a crossroads milling hamlet, touring shows of many kinds scheduled performances. Bringing "culture" to the rural folk, minstrel shows, revivals, acting troupes, carnivals and special exhibits were hauled from town to town, charging nominal fees for a chance to open a window on the world. Usually comprising no more than a half-dozen people, appearances ranged from satisfying entertainment to unadulterated sham.

Moving the circus, however, was a logistical nightmare, with its dissimilar elements housed under the irresistible Big Top. Therefore, due to travel limitations, it was slow to capture the American imagination. Europe's concentrated populace was long familiar with its appeal as caravans of animals and entertainers could travel about on improved turnpikes. Children from the Urals to the Atlantic dreamed of being a juggler or an aerialist, a clown or a lion tamer.

While dating to 1793, with a performance before George Washington in Philadelphia, the circus could not easily reach the United States' far-flung inhabitants. By the Civil War, however, with the development of roadways, the advent of railroads, and the spread of population centers large and small, the American landscape was crisscrossed by a variety of nomadic shows.

Scant references note that several circus troupes visited Honeoye Falls in the decades prior to 1880, perhaps as far back as the 1850s, and lacking outside entertainment, the village sometimes created a home-grown show, such as the march of the "Ancient Horribles," when citizens and conveyances paraded through the streets in hilarious attire. In the Centennial celebration of July 4, 1876, the revelers built life-size elephants constructed of barrel hoops and canvas. The "carcasses" were later cast into the field near the New York Central Railroad bridge above the falls, and train travelers passing by covered their noses at the perceived stench.

The first documented circus was October 24, 1883, when "VAN AMBURGH'S GREAT SHOW" came to town. With half-page ads in the Honeoye Falls Times, the buildup worked the citizenry into fits of expectations:

Mammoth Menagerie!
Gigantic Circus!
It Is Coming!
Five Times Greater Than Ever!
Wait For It!

Boasting a magnificent (their words) morning pageant, followed by afternoon and evening performances, there was a Great Golden Menagerie, Museum, Aquarium, Aviary, Caravan and Circus." Equestrians, tumblers, gymnasts and acrobats supplemented "Madame Maynard: the Woman of the Iron Jaw" and the "Goddess of Liberty."

Fearing inclement weather, the populace awoke to a cloudless autumn sky, gathered in a variety of conveyances around the Four Corners and watched Amburgh's arrival. The Times critiqued the show in reserved terms, saying it was "…of about the same calibre witnessed many times before." Its one distinction was for its departure in those rough-and-ready days of a century ago:

The circus left as it came, peaceably, and of the brawls which usually occur on such occasions, we are happy to state we have none to report.

A decade passed before Honeoye Falls received another traveling show. On May 17, 1893, despite rain and mud, "CHARLES LEE'S GREAT LONDON CIRCUS" gave two performances before overflow audiences. There was the standard buildup of newspaper ads with embellished promises ("We Never Indulge in Bombastic Challenges"), and a letter to the editor (unsigned) entitled "Hurrah for the Circus."

It was "…the largest 25 cent show in existence," highlighted by the "Dazzling Egyption Mennon Throne of Music," "Professor Wack's London Military Band" and the "Masques of the Komical Ku Klux." And, according to the aforementioned letter:

…Mr. Lee has a knack to suiting the public taste better than the overgrown monopolies of the Barnum and Forepaugh stripe. He always has something new and fresh.

Touche Barnum & Bailey, even then "The Greatest Show on Earth." One only wished such claims were true. For openers, the Times quiped: "The grand and gorgeous street parade was almost a yard long and a small boy pronounced it a fizzle."

Lee's show had few redeeming qualities and several poor ones. The managers were gentlemanly, but the crew was a tough lot of foragers, and the ring performances were mediocre. Barnum had nothing to fear and, preached the local Times, "…the people would lose nothing if ten years elapse before another such a rank show comes this way." Fortunately, the very next year Honeoye Falls and environs had its faith restored in the traveling circus—and how!

"RINGLING BROTHERS WORLD'S GREATEST SHOWS," the primary rival of Barnum & Bailey's, came to the village exhibition grounds. While Barnum had created his first circus train in 1872, allowing exhibitions to travel throughout much of the nation, the Ringling show had been slow to the rails and was making its first Eastern tour. Due to a twist of fate, the Ringlings were scheduled for Sept. 11 in Canandaigua and the 13th in Rochester. In their fifth year of travel by railroad, efficient mobility allowed for daily shows, so tiny Honeoye Falls (population: 1000) was plugged in for Sept. 12, 1894.

With two trains of 20 cars each, the colossus was ferried down the "Peanut Branch" from Canandaigua, unloaded in the station yards and organized into a street parade befitting the largest cities. They marched down West Main Street to the Palmer grounds, constructed a vast city of canvas using elephants for the heaviest work, and gave the residents two unforgettable presentations.

At 50 cents per adult and half-price for kids under 12, ticket holders witnessed: "Cæsar's Triumphal Entry Into Rome," "The Royal Roman Hippodrome," "Lundin, The Strongest Man in the World," "Akimoto's Troupe of Japanese Equilibrialists," the largest living giraffe and a monster hippopotamus. Midway attractions, magicians, clowns and a wide variety of animals further enthralled the spectators.

"There were no disturbances," boasted the Times, "the crowd being orderly and peaceable, and the entire absence of fakirs [hustlers, beggars] was noticeable." Like none other in its history, Honeoye Falls enjoyed one fairytale day.

Spoiled by the Ringling standard, townfolk measured succeeding circuses astutely. Some shows nearly measured up; others were average in quality, and at least one was composed of a coarse band of hustlers. Also the "WELSH BROTHERS' NEWEST GREAT RAILROAD SHOW AND LONDON HIPPODROME COMBINED." promoted itself heavily with fancy newspaper and broadside billings, then failed to keep the appointment, leaving kids large and small heartily disappointed.

"ANDREW DOWNIE'S CIRCUS" made several successful visits around the turn of the century. For a one-ring show hauled overland by wagons, Downie achieved maximum results from 50 performers and a profusion of animals. In the years prior to World War I, the "AL BARNES' WILD ANIMAL CIRCUS" came by rail, conducted mile-long parades to the Tinker farm showgrounds out Monroe Street, and gave thrilling performances to large audiences. And in 1922 the "COLE BROTHERS WORLD TOURED SHOWS & BIG TRAINED WILD ANIMAL EXHIBITION" matched their billing of a "…clean, refined, moral, and high class exhibition." (In tandem with the great lion trainer, Clyde Beatty, the Coles went on to create a show that, today, is the world's largest outdoor circus under the Big Top."

"SIG SAUTELLE'S CIRCUS" (1912) and "THOMPSON'S WILD WEST SHOW" (1913), were warmly received railroad shows, and the truck-conveyed circuses of Silvan-Drew (1928), Ketrow Brothers (1929) and Alf Wheeler (1930) gave credible performances. Ever seeking adequate show grounds, Silvan-Drew was set upon the present Dekar property at Monroe and Maplewood, while Wheeler and the Ketrows used the Old School Grounds, today's Harry Allen Park.

Turning back the clock a few decades, the most penetrating account came out of the visit by a delinquent aggregation entitled "LEON WASHBURN'S CIRCUS, MUSEUM, MENAGERIE, HIPPODROME AND WILD WEST SHOW". As a great admirer of the O'Briens family's departed Honeoye Falls Times, especially its earthy, effective reporting, this writer backtracks to May 28, 1896, for the following masterful description:

The Circus At Suckersville

…the assertion was made by a manager of the "Greatest Show on Earth" that a circus is one of two most important events in the lives of country people. While a circus is not an everyday affair, the importance that attaches to it depends only on the way it is conducted.

There are circuses good, bad and indifferent. All of them have attractions for the small boy and for big ones grown tall. They seem to have a drawing power that gets the folks out at daylight and keeps them hanging around the station for hours, a glimpse of the animals alone satisfying an appetite for breakfast.

Once the people are educated up to a really good circus, a snide affair loses its drawing qualities, even in the country, where most of the people today know what it is if they do live a "little out."

Washburn's Circus came to town yesterday…the menagerie, wild west show, and two rings were credible, but the "third ring" exhibition didn't bring away so favorable an impression.

Under the canvas was a tough aggregation of snake charmers, electric ladies, fakirs and thimble riggers, who plied their trade to the sorrow of quite a few victims, with the invaluable aid of a few local "cappers." It was our fondest hope that an experience with electric belt fakirs would be a lesson not to tackle a fakir at his own game, but the sermon on that topic seems to have fallen flat.

The red lemonade and peanuts go in their deadly work on the new crop of suckers and these were beguiled into an attempt to "do up" the men with the shell game. Although the story of their operations at Ovid and Naples preceded them here, they did a big business for a rainy day, unmolested by our officers.

Scores of victims were losers to the tune of $5 and upwards as high as $60, while one prominent resident of shrewd financial ability permitted them to take his long wallet containing $240 and in short order it had changed hands and they had folded their tables and disappeared with something over $600. Next.

The arrival of the 1930s brought the worst of the Great Depression and most traveling shows fell victim to economic strangulation. After the "WHEELER CIRCUS" in June, 1930, none of that ilk came to Honeoye Falls for nearly a quarter century. There were variations to the theme, however, when smaller troupes arranged modified performances.

In 1931, thirty artists presented "Stetson's Uncle Tom's Cabin" in a tent placed on the old school grounds. The dramatic production was on its 54th annual tour, and reportedly played to an appreciative audience. Two years later, the Falls Theatre (situated in the village hall) witnessed several shows by the "GANGLER BROTHERS CIRCUS." Heralded as the greatest state production ever in Honeoye Falls, there were 60 performing animals and several clowns, followed by a Tom Mix movie. At a quarter a head, few residents missed this innovative entertainment.

In 1942, shortly after America's entry into World War II, James Cole, of Cole Brothers Circus fame, was on the road with an indoor show. Playing at the high school gymnasium, there was the standard collection of animals, acrobats and clowns, along with the elephant Jumbo. Too large to pass through the doors of some schools, Jumbo was the determining factor in getting a visit by the Cole circus. Upon cramming the pachyderm through Honeoye Falls High School's doors, the offering was deemed a success, the school realized a $35 profit, and Cole departed for Rochester's Franklin High, his next stop.

Finally, in June of 1953, an authentic tented version returned to Honeoye Falls. Arriving in 20 trucks for placement in Harry Allen Park, the "VON BROTHERS CIRCUS" brought back the flavor of great traveling shows of old. Even at the age of five, this writer recalls some of the hoopla and wonder of that Saturday—the tent, with its assortment of stakes and ropes, the growls and shrieks of the animals, the daring performers on high and the jocular clowns.

Half a lifetime rolled past before show tents graced the local skyline again. With the coming of the "FRANZEN BROTHERS CIRCUS" to Firemen's Field last July [1990], a new generation of youngsters embraced an authentic portion of Americana—while children grownup rediscovered it. Sentinel editor Sarah Perkins' poignant description of the event (Sentinel, July 5, 1990), with but few adjustments could have related to a traveling circus of a century ago.

Little did I realize that my own firstborn would be five before I'd ever behold such a spectacle again. It was at Woodlawn Plantation, Mount Vernon, Virginia, when the "CLYDE BEATTY-COLE BROTHERS CIRCUS" emblazoned its magic on my daughter's memory. While we missed last summer's Franzen Brothers show, it is comforting to know the tented circus is still plying the highways of America. One day, we will cross paths again.

© 1991, Paul S. Worboys
Reprinted from The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel of Thursday, August 22, 1991.
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