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The Greatest Show on Earth

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman — 

Well before the Civil War, circus troupes had made their way to Texas. The earliest mention of a circus in our local newspaper was on Jan. 7, 1859. My interest in the NB circus scene began with an early 1900s photograph featuring a circus parade of camels on Seguin Street. A quick search led to three other photos of camels and elephants marching around Main Plaza in 1932. My curiosity was piqued.

I clearly remember going to the circus as a child. It was magical, scary, exciting and wild. I had seen “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” on trips to the San Antonio Zoo. We even got to ride the elephants back then. But at the circus, the animals were not all in cages and they were interacting with people. The color, glitter and lights of “The Big Show” mesmerized me.

I cannot imagine what Circus Day was like for a child in the 1860s. Back in an age when travel consisted of going in to town or to the county seat, the circus would be so much more than entertainment. It would have been a travelling world of wonders and marvel — a magical world populated by creatures and people from storybooks. The newspaper advertisements alone conjured up images of exotic places and animals. They were filled with detailed descriptions and woodcuts of the most amazing acts and performers.

Those advertisements still illicit a reaction today. When I had two Sophienburg volunteers, Dennis Schwab and Rose Emich, translate the NB Zeitung German print, we still reacted with, “What!” “Oh my goodness!” “Really?” and “Can you imagine?” These outbursts were followed by laughter as the flowery prose of the early circus “advance men” was turned into English.

The first circus to make the Zeitung was Maybie’s Menagerie & Circus in 1859. The troupe—which included 30 people, 80 horses, two elephants, one camel, five lions, and numerous smaller animals and birds—paraded through town in brightly painted wagons and costumes of rainbow-colored satins. The sight, smell and sound alone would have been spectacular. It gets better. The elephants drank water from the Comal River!

After 1865, more and more circuses found their way to New Braunfels. The Stone, Roston & Murray Circus had organized and traveled for 5 years in England, Germany, France and Spain before coming to the United States. Their full one-column advertisement featured woodcuts of circus wagons, daring trick-riders and amazing performing dogs. (We get the phrase, “dog and pony show” from these early circuses.) The advert goes on to say that special seating — secured by delegated men — would be available to women accompanied by a gentleman. Personally, I don’t get the need for such an upgrade, but apparently the 1860s women did.

A small, but well-attended Mexican circus was reported in July 1869. It featured balancing acts and feats of strength. What was interesting was the breakdown of performer ethnicity: Mexicans, Spaniards, Americans, one German and one Chinese juggler. Apparently, this circus was politically correct way before its time.

Several circuses came through around Christmas time. The Hight & Chambers Circus & Menagerie was in town for Weihnachts Feiertag (Dec 26th or Boxing Day). Woodcuts of lions and elephants accompany the list of performers: 10 trick riders, 11 acrobats and wire walkers and 20 musicians and minstrels. The menagerie had a 500 lb. baby elephant, polar bear, Bengal tiger, monkeys, meerkats and baboons.

In the 1870s, the shows got bigger — the word “mammoth” was often used in the descriptions. The Crescent City Texas Circus was first owned by H. M. Smith and then NOLA-born Charles Noyes. Each, in turn, set the Big Top up in NB. Smith brought 33 performers, 24 trained horses, two American and one German clown, and a band so good that “they didn’t want to sound like they were bragging, but.” They not only gave a discount to large families, but they also advertised positions for two new brass musicians. There is no report of any young New Braunfelsers running away to the circus…but who knows?

The Noyes-owned version came with Jenny Lind the Elephant, white 2-humped camels, dromedaries, lions, leopards, tigers, hyenas, kangaroos, Japanese pigs, llamas, African deer, Nile zebras, bears, sacred cows, Dutch ostriches, white peacocks, Brazilian parrots, silver pheasants, cockatiels, African grey parrots, anteaters, badgers, monkeys, baboons and over 100 “colored and feathered” birds. The menagerie part of the circus had become a veritable traveling zoo.

There were many, many more “big shows” mentioned in the Zeitung throughout the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century. But the advertisement of the Cole Circus in December 1872 blew us all away. It promised a mile-long parade of 300 men and horses, 350 wild and trained animals, birds, snakes, and other curiosities that cost $1,600 a day to maintain. There would be 20 decorated golden cages full of animals “worth seeing,” the only genuine hippopotamus in the country, a herd of camels, Bengal tigers, leopards, lions, hyenas, capybaras, a horned horse (A UNICORN!), tapirs and monkeys. And if that didn’t whet the appetite of even the most jaded circus attendee, there was also a 20 ton, 26-foot long, 18-foot diameter black whale on an enormous horse-drawn wagon! I looked it up. Circuses actually embalmed whales and took them on the road. It doesn’t end here. This two tent, gas-lit show could accommodate 5,000 people, and included a wax museum with notables such as Sleeping Beauty, Prince Alexis of Russia and Col. James Fish. One ticket bought it all.

Truly, this was pretty close to being “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Photo: S323-012_2 – Elephants and camels of the Schell Bros. Circus in the “only big, free street parade” still in existence in March 1932. The circus was sponsored by local businesses so that cost of admission went from 50¢ to 10¢ per person. The four-ring circus set up at the Comal County Fairgrounds.

Photo: S323-012_2 – Elephants and camels of the Schell Bros. Circus in the “only big, free street parade” still in existence in March 1932. The circus was sponsored by local businesses so that cost of admission went from 50¢ to 10¢ per person. The four-ring circus set up at the Comal County Fairgrounds.


Sources:

  • Sophienburg photo collection
  • Neu Braunfelser Zeitung
  • History of New Braunfels and Comal County, Haas, Oscar
  • www.circushistory.org