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The Circus – June 2013 Edition of History & Heritage

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Welcome to this month’s edition of the History & Heritage Center. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

Progress with the armory will be updated later this month. Please check out our web site, stjhistory.org for other articles, upcoming events, information and pictures. Our phone number is 424 – 1090 and our office is located in the lower floor of the Summer Street School Building.

THE CIRCUS IS COMING!

This announcement was heard as early as 1834 in town and is being repeated in July of 2013 here in St. Johnsbury.The history of the circus is almost as old as the founding of this country and was a primary form of entertainment and information for folks in the 1800’s. By 1900 there were more than one hundred circuses traveling about! The Circus in America: 1793 -1940 marks the “Golden Age” of the American circus from 1872 – 1905.


Our first newspaper account of the circus showed in the first newspaper, The Farmer’s Herald, on August 24th, 1831.The paper was a weekly Whig journal edited by Dr. Luther Jewett and printed in a small building where the Academy would later be. The entry for the 24th –

 The Circus saw fit to come parading into our quiet little village on the last Sabbath. Legislative    enactments are needed to guard the community against these baleful influences.

Opinion duly noted in the above but hoped for a more detailed description of the circus that appeared in St. Johnsbury that early on! Edward Fairbanks makes references to “Going to see the Elephant” as early as 1821. The 1821 elephant was not named, but subsequent elephants were recorded such as Columbus in 1834; Hannibal in 1849; Tippoo Sahib in 1864, and in 1882 Jumbo, came to town. Jumbo, weighing in at 13,000 pounds, took his bath in the Passumpsic River!

Claire Dunne Johnson in her book, I See by the Paper…, speaks of the locations where the circuses were held.  In 1896 the Sparks & Cole Circus performed where the parking lot for Rite Aid is now located on Railroad Street. In 1897 St. Johnsbury was visited by two circuses:  Ward’s Great London Circus used the Railroad Street location for its one-ring show, and Forepaugh’s Circus performed on Captain Hovey’s field in Summerville – Portland Street area.  In the late 1800’s, it was rare not to be visited by a circus in St. Johnsbury!

Perhaps one of the largest circuses to visit was the Barnum & Bailey in July of 1893. This would have been set up down by the fairgrounds (Comfort Inn area). From the Caledonian, we get a description of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”  The advertisement reads in part –

CONTAINING EVERY COUNTRY’S BEST ATTRACTION

Together with Imre Kiralfy’s Glorious and Magnificent Historical Spectacle

COLUMBUS

And the Discovery of America.

The ad goes on to whet your appetite with 3 circuses, 3 rings, 2 elevated stages, magic Illusions; along with 60 aerialists, 20 clowns, 20 animal actors, performing cats, dogs, pigs, storks, sheep, geese and wild beasts. Add to this list:  2 herds of elephants, 2 droves of camels and 100 chariots. The male and female performers numbered 1200 along with 100 horses, 50 cages, 64 cars, 4 trains. Can’t you just imagine watching this unload from the railroad? And then to watch them put up the huge tents and ready the grounds for the performances. What a thrill for youngsters of yesteryear!

All of this could be seen with performances at 2 and 8 p.m. with admission for all at 50 cents and children under 9 years at 25 cents.


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