The circus is coming to town: Free parades drew rural crowds

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Imagine the stereographic or magic-lantern views of the coming Robbins Circus shown on the piazza of the Knowersville House (later called the Altamont Hotel). What a way to stir up anticipation in 1885! This building was set beside the railroad tracks facing Main Street. Today, a gas station and convenience store is on the site.

News in the 1880s and ’90s that a traveling circus was stopping in town created an air of anticipation and excitement among all ages. Normally, the daily lives of that era’s country folks were monotonously routine, making the novelty and glamour of the circus’s arrival an event to remember.

Advance news in The Enterprise in July 1885 that Frank A. Robbins Circus and Menagerie was about to appear not only stirred up interest in Knowersville (after 1887, the name was changed to Altamont), but in the surrounding hamlets as well. Knowersville, conveniently located on the busy D&H rail line, was the perfect spot for a one-ring circus to set up and attract paying customers from a wide area.

Using what was advanced technology of the time, the event was promoted with stereopticon views of the coming circus from the piazza of the Knowersville House. The exact location where the circuses that visited Knowersville/Altamont set up their tents and menageries was never specifically identified, but there was certainly much open land adjacent to the village at that time.

When the big day arrived, the village was packed with circus-goers “from near and far” filling village streets to view the circus parade. Circus parades were an American tradition acting as free come-ons, but the cost of admission of this or any of the other circuses over the years was never publicized in The Enterprise.

Following the Robbins’s circus parade were two performances, afternoon and evening, attended by large audiences. In the next week’s edition, The Enterprise editor commented approvingly that “it was the first time in our experience with a show of this kind in town, the program as advertised was carried out.”

Again in 1889, Frank A. Robbins Circus made a stop in Altamont, now with additional attractions including a Wild West hippodrome and a museum in addition to his circus and menagerie. Enterprise readers were advised, “Do not fail to visit this wonderful show … a good circus and an extensive collection of wild animals.”

With the arrival of the Robbins Circus, the village was described as “being in a flutter of excitement” with small boys as well as many of mature years out in force. The next week’s edition noted that the circus had come and gone except for a mound of earth in the shape of a ring … .”

Apparently the day they were leaving town, mention was made by departing circus workers that some reptiles had escaped. No one took it too seriously until one of Mrs. Wm. M. Lainhart’s family members encountered, what The Enterprise described, an “immense snake coiled up near the Old Schoharie Plank Road.”

After being alerted about this discovery, Jacob Van Auken dispatched the unfortunate serpent with an ax. When stretched out full length, it measured eight feet long, attracting many curious onlookers over the next few days.


Sad tale

Circus life in the small one-ring circuses that crossed rural America was fraught with insecurity and uncertainty. The expenses of feeding and paying performers and other workers, feeding animals, covering transportation costs, keeping up the conditions of equipment and tent, and providing a profit for the owner had to be met from ticket sales.

The visit of Rice’s Circus to Altamont proved to be one of the last chapters in the sad tale of a circus down on its luck.

The visit was scheduled for July 1887. The Enterprise announced that the advance car of J.H. Rice’s Circus and Menagerie had arrived, making preparations for a show later that week. The editor claimed, “The show is highly endorsed by the press and we have no hesitancy in speaking in its favor.”

The arrival of the Rice circus caused a stir in the village. Although the outfit had many wagons and other material, the condition of their tent was “torn and dilapidated.” Circus officials brushed it off, claiming the conditions were “due to being hit by a cyclone,” but The Enterprise’s snide comment was, “That gave them away.”

The performers carried on like troupers with the paper admitting many of the acts were “quite meritorious,” but unfortunately the audience attendance was rather small. Rice’s Circus moved on to Albany “where it was reported it was sold to Jacobs & Proctor, who give outdoor 10 cent shows.”

“The Circus Again” was an article appearing the next week continuing the sad saga and fate of Rice’s Circus after leaving Altamont. Setting up in Albany, the circus first suffered disaster when its elephant “Empress” nearly killed a circus-goer.

The circus, which had been operating at a loss, had hoped to “retrieve their fortune” on reaching Albany, but no luck. Manager J.O. O’Brien ordered a quiet street parade, no band playing, moving south out of the city, intending to head for Philadelphia.

Skipping town, leaving behind unpaid and angry creditors, the circus arrived in Coxsackie where the troupe gave a performance. They then, apparently on foot and in wagons, made it to Jersey City.

Here an employee named Edward Welch, went to court, seeking his unpaid salary and also charged “cruelty to dumb animals,” claiming the horses, camels, elephant, lion, and bulls had not been fed since they left Albany and that one of the camels died of starvation.

An arrest warrant went out for O’Brien, but, seemingly an expert on skipping town, he was nowhere to be found. The remains of his circus was moved on to Philadelphia, perhaps where it had originated.

Huge numbers of animals, both domestic and exotic, traveled with these circuses, and at that time their treatment was not an issue except among a very few. In 1907, a short article appeared in The Enterprise, illustrating concern for the poor treatment of circus animals. 

“Trained By Cruelty” claimed that “animals as a rule were taught tricks through torture,” adding that some members of the circus community “speak with horror of the methods of some trainers.” Animal welfare was not an issue for most circus-goers and it was unusual to see reference to this topic in those years.


Circuses grow

One-ring circuses continued to stop in Altamont on and off for the next few years.1892 brought Chas. Lee’s Monster London Circus with acrobats, gymnasts, trapeze artists, a clown, and performing dogs and horses.

The circus was described as “strictly first class” with a “splendid street parade,” and as being “entirely free from fakirs, gamblers or other objectionable features.” Chas. Lee’s circus returned the next year with a show “better than many that charge twice the admission.”

Disreputable hangers-on or dishonest circus employees often used the honest and naïve circus-goers encountered at these rural stops as chickens ready to be plucked.

In 1908, after a visit by Frank A. Robbins Circus, an Enterprise article titled “Robbery and Flim-Flam Game” mentioned one “aged and respected citizen lost $200 to a “slick individual,” while a young man was flim-flammed out of $56 by the ticket seller.

Others were robbed of smaller amounts, making the promise of respectable behavior by circus employees in advance publicity a plus for potential customers.

In all the promotion of visiting circuses, there is never a mention of the cost of admission whether for one of the small one-ring circuses that visited Altamont or the really big shows that appeared in Albany. Certainly not everyone could afford to go to the circus, though the street parades were free for the public.

While in 1893 Sautelle & Ewer’s Circus set up in Altamont, playing to large crowds, a decade later Sautelle’s Circus was described as a “mammoth affair,” bypassing Altamont to set up in Albany. Now expanded into a two-ring circus and traveling on 26 railroad cars, there were the usual circus acts and menagerie.

New additions included the royal Roman hippodrome and a historical Wild West Show. The acts were “all new and novel and original,” many being described as “highly sensational.”

Not only was there a 63 horse and pony act, but the unique “earth’s only pony riding lion named Nero performing wonderful feats.” A mile-long street parade promised to be a brilliant pageant of lustrous chariots, dens of wild beasts, bands, a steam calliope and “more big things than ever was witnessed before in a street procession.”

Competition between the two huge circuses Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. that were traveling from one large city to another forced each of them to become more elaborate each year. In turn, their shows put pressure on smaller circuses to expand or like Rice’s, be pushed into bankruptcy.

Albany and occasionally Schenectady or Troy became the setting for an annual visit of one or both of these big circuses. Hoping to attract large audiences, the circuses put out detailed publicity notices describing their new and novel attractions for that year, inserted in all the newspapers while railroads put on special excursion trains for patrons to travel at reduced rates to attend the circus.

At this stage, smaller circuses were relegated to performing in more outlying rural areas.

Using the 1912 Barnum & Bailey Circus’s publicity announcing their appearance in Albany as an example, here are the details of their fabulous show for that year. Their performance was now expanded with a cast of 1,250 characters; a grand opera chorus of 100 voices; an orchestra of 100 musicians; a 350-dancing-girl ballet; 650 horses; five herds of elephants; caravans of camels; and an entire trainload of special scenery, costumes, and stage effects.

There was to be a lengthy parade and their spectacle “Cleopatra.” The circus traveled on a train more than a mile in length and would cover 14 acres when set up.

There were 110 cages in the menagerie and over 2,000 wagons and other vehicles. This circus has nearly 1,500 employees, 700 horses, and nearly two-thirds of all the elephants in America.

Barnum & Bailey promised what you saw in Albany would be the same as the performance the audience experienced in Madison Square Garden. They guaranteed, “This is the greatest spectacular theatrical and circus event in the history of amusements in America.”

Both Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. changed their spectacles annually plus added new exotic animals and acts to get audiences to return each year.

(Just an aside: With all those animals and all those people, can you imagine the unsanitary conditions left behind when the circus left town back in those days?)


Fair attractions

And what about the performers in the small fading or bankrupt circuses who didn’t have the talent or unusual act to be in the big-time circuses? By the turn of the 20 Century, county fairs were in their heyday and troupes of former circus performers found a new venue. 

In 1908, Altamont fair-goers could see several free attractions including the Ethiopian Black Birds, Bilyck’s Educated Sea Lions, The Trained Chimpanzee, The Four Famous Dieke Sisters, The Double Jointed Midget, and The Famous Gila Monsters. Each year, similar attractions traveled the county fair circuit, becoming part of each fair’s attractions.

Circus-going in the later 19th Century and during a large part of the 20th Century was a popular pastime for those who could afford admission. In those times, very few ever raised concerns about the treatment of the animals or the working conditions of performers and other workers employed setting up or breaking down the circus on arrival and departure.

The free and lengthy and elaborate street parades created a spectacle for everyone. With the excitement and glamour, is it any wonder so many kids wanted to run away to join the circus and a few adults secretly wished they had?