Friday, February 03, 2017

An elephant crossing on White Breast Creek

The worst possible news for everyone other than animal rights activists --- that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, aka The Greatest Show on Earth, will fold during May after a 176-year run --- somehow has gotten lost amid the political paroxysms of the year just past. But it's true and some 500 performers and support personnel will be out of work after a final performance in Uniondale, New York. Not to mention the unemployed animals.

So I was intrigued to find on the front page of The Chariton Leader of Jan. 4, 1927, a report of what may have been the first elephant sighting in Lucas County. The reporter was the Rev. Emery Wilson Curtis (1853-1937), recalling childhood days in Otter Creek Township's Norwood community.

The encounter with these perambulating pachyderms reportedly occurred as the Curtis family was headed into Chariton at some point during the mid-1860s on the old Osceola Road to take in a circus performance. Emery was one of 16 children, so the Curtis procession would have been a sight to behold in itself. Here's his report, published under the headline, "Day with Barnum's elephants long ago."

"Des Moines was a thrifty little town with no railroad. Patches of hazel brush were scattered over Capitol Hill, and wild deer and wild turkeys once in a while ventured in sight. Indianola, Chariton and Osceola were villages.

"Barnum with his 'Greatest Show on Earth' was touring this part of the new west. His horses hauled everything from county seat to county seat over the crooked prairie roads. But his elephants were too big to ride in a wagon and they needed to walk. These big elephants, in charge of a man on horseback, walked that day from Osceola to Chariton.

"Father had cut some blue-stem grass for the horses and had finished cradling the oats, and we all went to the show. We got up early and returned late.

"Our wagon ran across the show wagons out somewhere not far from Rankin's store (north of where Lucas now is). When they came to White Breast they said the elephants were too heavy for the wooden bridge, and they were turned down a steep path into the water below. The water was deep there. The elephants drank deeply and then spouted the water all over their big, hot, dusty sides and backs. It was interesting to watch them use their trunks and to see their big tusks.

"I took my new straw hat mother had made and placed it into one of the elephant's big round tracks in the dust. It was a pretty good fit. My hat had a red, white and blue band, for it was war times and we were for the Union. My hat was brand new when we started but not quite so new when we arrived home.

"At Chariton we saw them feed the lions and pelicans. They had ostriches, giraffes and a hippopotamus. They motto of P.T. Barnum was, 'He who amuses without corrupting is a public benefactor.' The world has always had amusements and always will have. And if every show and every amusement were governed by this principle of P.T. Barnum, how much happier man would be and how free from tarnish."

Emery was a retired United Brethren preacher when he wrote, so it should surprise no one that he ended on a moral high note. He had retired and moved into Des Moines during 1923 after his final formal pastorate --- nine years at the United Brethren Church in Chariton during which debt on the church building was paid off and a new parsonage built.

Preachers never lie, of course, but memory may have failed him in a couple of instances here. P.T. Barnum did not launch his traveling circus until 1870, but it is quite possible that it was Bailey's show that the Curtis family encountered at the White Breast crossing just east of Tallahoma, where Rankin's store and a Western Stage Coach Co. stop were located.

Unfortunately, no Civil War-era issues of Lucas County newspapers survive, but I did find reference to a visit to Chariton by the Bailey show in The Democrat of Aug. 15, 1868:

"The Circus --- As was seen by advertisement in last week's issue, Bailey's Menagerie and Circus will be here today, and from what we can gather from our exchanges, it is all that it pretends to be. It embraces a large variety of the quadruped and feathered tribes, including a hippopotamus, rhinoceros and yak of Tartary. In connection with the above, they have a first-class circus, consisting of well-trained gymnasts, and equestrians, and a clown whose facetious hits and comical sayings are regular side-splitters to the fun-loving community. Of course everybody will go to see them and by devoting one day to amusement and recreation, break the spell of enchantment which has so long been upon this community, in the shape of hot weather, dull times and financial difficulties. Come out, farmers and mechanics, laborers and professors, moralists and divines, bring your wives, your children, your sweethearts, your horses and dogs, and if you can't bring them, bring your neighbors, and throw aside that woe-begone look, and devote one day of our precious lives to fun and recreation. The procession will enter town at 10 o'clock A.M. and will parade the principal streets of the city, headed by the gorgeous golden Chariot, containing a splendid cornet band, and drawn by dromedaries."

It was interesting to read in recent reports about the end of the line for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey that its current owners, Feld Entertainment, blame the closure in part on the more-or-less forced retirement of the circus elephants, residents of a conservation farm in central Florida since May of last year. Loss of a major attraction as well as a general decline in interest in the type of entertainment circuses offered were cited.

Animal rights activists had targeted the circus, alleging cruelty to the giant animals. Those allegations were disproved in various lawsuits and the circus actually was awarded $25 million in damages from activist groups. But the damage (in the view of traditionalists and circus owners) or triumph (in the view of animal rights activists) already had been accomplished.


Steve Hanken said...

The Ringling Bros. before they were Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, were originally from McGregor, Iowa. Also the reason Circus World Museum is located a Baraboo, Wisconsin as that is the place they wintered well before settling down I'm Florida. The fact they made it this long is rather remarkable as well, in those early days, operating as they did was certainly not consistent with the well oil machine of the recent past. The story is told that in my fair city of Monticello the circus nearly ground to a halt after a wind storm damaged their tents and successive rain had dropped attendance to a point they didn't have the cash to pay their feed bill. It is said that some of the stock was held in case they didn't get the money they needed together. What remained of the circus limped to the Dubuque county town of Cascade, where the man who ran the news paper took pity on them, fronted them advertising in the hopes they would garner enough money from a performance in Cascade to pay him back. The town turned out to help them put the circus back together and with a few sunny days and sold out crowds, the Ringling Brothers rescued their animals in Monticello, paid their outstanding bills and went on to become the greatest show on earth! Several years later, a few of the folks who had assisted Ringling Brothers, were at a location where the circus was set up and decided to take in the show. The barker recognized them from the rescue mission they performed and offered them a free pass for their assistance that kept the Circus from ending. That offer was later extended to anyone who came to the Ringling Circus who could show proof of residence as a thank you to all those who had helped keep the circus alive so many years before and continues to be honored to this day. Since you do so much to entertain us Frank, I thought I would give you a little "rest of the story" for your listening pleasure! Steve

Frank D. Myers said...

Great Story! Thanks for sharing it, Steve.