A Circus and An Era
In today's world of rapid transportation and mass communications we often take for granted the technological advancements that surround us. Yet, most of these advancements are the product of the last seventy-five years. It would do us well to call a halt to our rapid pace for a while, and reflect upon that period of time — not as hero worship but as a reexamination of those processes which brought us to the age of the atom. Often in our histories we read of well-known personalities, but the common man, the lesser known individual, also played an important role. It was through his mistakes, his patient plodding, his heartbreak and his successes that our society was built.
Let us now focus in depth on the life of a particular man; on George Satterly. He was not a nationally known figure, though New York State knew him well, nor was he a great inventor, though some of his innovations changed the entertainment world, but he was a man of his time whose life paralleled the development of our society and who in his own small way, helped to form that society. The man of whom I speak is George Satterly.
George Satterly was born in the northern New York town of Luzerne in the year 1850.1 His father was a shoemaker, a hard and toilsome profession in the age before the sewing machine. George did not shy from work though he always dreamed of new horizons. With the coming of the Civil War he begged his father to let him enlist. The shoe business being poor in a small town, George's father gave him his blessing to go fight for the Union. At the same time, his father took on, as an apprentice, George's younger brother Halsey.
After making his farewells and wiping a tear from his mother's eye, George marched off to join the 18th New York Volunteer Infantry in 1862.2 Being of so tender an age, he was assigned as a drummer boy. Local legend has it that he served with honor and in one case distinguished himself on the field of battle. In 1865, with the termination of hostilities he was discharged.
Slowly he returned from the South on the nation's yet inadequate transportation system, a system which plagued him nearly the rest of his life. Back in Luzerne he took a job as a printer's devil and then as a wagon maker.3 By the time he was twenty-one, he again had the urge to travel, to see new places and to meet new people, and what could fulfill this urge better than the life with the circus? Hearing of the Great North American Circus, he immediately set off for its winter headquarters in Connecticut to seek employment and begin his life-long career as a circus man.
George proved to have talent in the entertainment field but more than that, a personal warmth which could touch the heart of his audience. He worked on the side shows as a magician, a ventriloquist and a puppeteer. Being a center of attraction, at least on the side show, gave George romantic ideas of the kind of image he should project. He saw himself as a great Italian circus star and so, changed his name from the common George Satterly to Signor Sautelle. His friends called him Sig, and that was the name that stayed with him.
"Sig" was an individualist and he felt he had to prove himself on his own. America was growing by leaps and bounds. Every youth dreamed of getting rich on his own and this was the time to do it. Around 1875, Sig set out to form his own circus. With twenty-three dollars he bought an old blind horse, a harness and a wagon.4 This was his first circus. He worked his way from Connecticut back to Northern New York by making one-night stands in the small towns along the way.
In 1876, Sig married Ida Belle Travers of Fort Edwards, New York — a union which was to prove an epoch of love.5 In 1880, Sig moved again — this time to Syracuse. He commissioned A. J. Murray to build thirty-four special circus wagons.6 Each wagon had a short reach and extra short spokes. The reason for this was, that Sig intended to run his show on the Erie Canal and if the wagons were to fit under the low canal bridges while setting on the deck of flat boats, they had to be built with a low center of gravity. By 1882, all was ready. Sig christened his boat the "Belle," in honor of his wife, and cast off to bring smiles to the faces of the people living along the Erie Canal and its then existing feeder canals.7 Soon Sig bought another boat, the "Kitty," and the show was really on the way.
For seven years Sig's show trod the towpath and then in 1889 he took to the road again.8 He sold the boat "Kitty" to a modern day evangelical group who intended to use it as a floating mission.
Shortly after the new group christened the boat the "Good News" a tragic fire struck engulfing the craft and sinking it to the muddy bottom of the canal.9 As for the boat "Belle," Sig anchored it in Clinton Square in Syracuse and made it his winter home. From this location he ran a dog circus to the delight of the local citizenry.
In 1892, Sig moved to DeRuyter, New York.10 All seemed quite peaceful and at last Sig seemed to have found a place to settle down. Yet, Sig had one annoyance. Whenever he went into town he was molested by one particularly large dog. Sig complained to he local officials but in vain. Finally, his patience able to take no more, he moved his troop to Homer, New York, in the summer of 1900. Never again did Sig have a fondness for dogs. Tax records show that he would not even keep one as a pet.11 In Homer he bought two hotels — one being "The Eagle House" as immortalized in E. N. Westcott's novel, The Real Life of David Harum.12 In 1902 he built a large octagonal training ring which he later converted into his own dwelling. Times were good and the circus was thriving — Sig was a wealthy man. The president of the Homer Bank recalls seeing Sig walk into a lunch counter, order, and then pay the bill for everyone eating there. Local inhabitants still recall Sig's diamond stick pin and big cigar.13 Today, also you can read some yellowing copies of the Tent City News, a paper which Sig published to extole the glories of his circus.
By 1902 railroads had made great advancements. Now safety features were invented, new spurs created and more economical fees were established. Sig saw this as the best means to transport his circus and in 1902 he bought fifteen flat cars.14 In 1904 he bought twenty-three more cars. His circus now played throughout the northeast. Things could not look brighter, but in 1904 tragedy struck. Sig's wife, Ida Belle, suffered a stroke. She could not keep up with the active pace of circus life.15 Later on in the year Sig sold the circus to James McCadon of the Barnum Circus.
The Sautelles returned alone to central New York. No steam organ, no cheering crowds greeted them, for now they were like anyone else — a man and his wife trying to earn a living in a small town. In 1907 Sig bought a chicken farm in the village of Homer.16 He lived there until his wife seemed completely recovered. The circus, however, had not gone out of his blood, and in 1911 he formed a partnership with Oscar Lowande and George Rollins to bring together a new railroad show.17
By 1913 the new circus had grown so large as to need forty railroad cars just to move it.18 A wild animal show was added and Sig seemed to be rivaling his former success. Again, however, as before, Ida's health failed and Sig sold his part of the show to Danny Robinson.19 Sig's luck had finally run out — the rest of his life proved to be a down swing. Unable to pay his property taxes and running up large debts due to his wife's medical expenses, Sig was forced to file bankruptcy in December of 1914.20 His assets were listed at $3815 while his liabilities totaled #33,102.21 In 1915 the Sautelle's moved to a small farm outside Homer.
In 1915 an event occurred which brought a little joy into Sig's heart though no money to his pocketbook. In that year the Wharton Moving Picture Company of Ithaca came to Homer to film a segment of the "Get Rich Quick Wallingford" serial.22 The star actress was the noted Pearl White who dazzled the local people. Miss White played alongside of the many circus performers who still made Homer their home. The glory of the old Sautelle Circus was reenacted, though just in the world of the camera and just for three days.
The next year, 1916, Ida Belle died. Sig was like a ship without a captain. He went from one job to the next. In 1927, just before the start of the great depression, Sig tried to organize a new show.23 With the improvement in roads and the recent develpment of large motor trucks, Sig decided to use that media to move his show. Caught in the fluctuation of prices and a downward whirlwind of credit, Sig's show failed the first year. On a warm day in June of 1928, Sig died.24 He was buried on the Traver plot in Union Cemetery, Fort Edwards, next to his wife — only a few short miles from the place of his birth.
Sig Sautelle's life was one with its ups and downs. Perhaps it was filled with more adventure and excitement than most. Surely it was not lacking in happiness and joy, but most of all, it was a life which passed on those emotions, that exuberance, that mirth, to whomever he came into contact. Many a drab life was brightened, many a sad face turned to smiles just at sighting his gaily colored wagons. The era of the old "wild" tent circus is gone, but its memory remains — it shall never cease to spread its idea of down-to-earth fun. Yes, more sophisticated forms of entertainment have replaced Sig's circus but his memory remains and burns bright — particularly with the brothers of his old profession. According to the sexton of Union Cemetery, whenever a circus plays in the area, old performers and sons of old performers are seen paying their respects at the grave site of the old circus man — a man whose life justly qualifies for its place in the Circus Hall of Fame.
© Curtis Harris
1 Census Records, Warren County, June, 7, 1855.
2 Harris, Curtis, "Sig Sautelle" Seven Valley Villager, May 27, 1961.
7 Kirkville Notes, July 17, 1889.
8 Canal Museum Display.
9 Account of Mrs. C. Wright, Onondaga County Historical Assn., Syracuse, NY.
10 Account of Curtis Harris, Homer, N. Y., Peace Justice.
11 Cortland County Tax Records, 1902 - 14.
12 Cortland County Clerk's Office, Deeds, book 92, p. 454.
13 Account of Frederick Baudry, Cortland, NY.
14 Harris, Curtis, "Sig Sautelle" Seven Valley Villager, May 27, 1961.
16 Marcellus Observer, January 4, 1907.
17 Harris, op. cit.
18 Lakeside Press, Febrauary 14, 1913.
19 Marcellus Observer, October 9, 1914.
20 Cortland County Tax Records, 1914.
21 Marcellus Observer, December 4, 1914.
22 Harris. op. cit.
23 Tully Times, July 28, 1928.