Reflections in Nature: Canton was circus HQs

BILL BOWER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent An early game warden brings a bear out of the woods.

This spring the “Greatest Show on Earth” will have its last curtain call. Field Entertainment, which is the owner of the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced on Jan. 14 that the 146-year-old circus will hold its final performances in May. The circus units of Ringling Bros. will conclude their tours with shows at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7, and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, in Uniondale, New York, on May 21.

The circus was created in 1919 by James Anthony Bailey and P.T. Barnum when merging with the Ringling Bros. Circus.

The decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales. After protests from animal rights activists, the elephants were removed from the circus, causing a much greater decline in ticket sales than had been anticipated.

The history of the circus can be traced back to 2,400 years before Christ. Probably the very first form of a circus act was known as bull leaping. This entailed a man grasping a charging bull by its horns and, with amazing agility, swinging upward to turn a complete somersault over the bull’s back, landing and quickly turning to catch the next leaper.

About 329 BC, the circus evolved into chariot races. Along with the races came events such as rope dancing, riders leaping from one galloping horse to another and also gymnastic events.

At the time of the Roman Empire, the Coliseum was built to hold brutal games, with wild animals fighting each other and also men fighting wild animals. Many times the human participants were Christians who were not willing participants.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the circus continued with small groups of performers selling items such as snake oil, cure-all medicines and charms, which were said to break evil spells. In time, animals, jugglers, musicians, rope walkers, sword swallowers and trick horseback riders were added.

Bears, tigers, lions and other exotic animals were added to the shows. The more dangerous the animal appeared to be, the more excited the crowd became, which was not a far cry from the Roman circus. These animal acts were combined with sideshows, games of chance, figures made of wax and bazaars.

In 1758, Philip Astley developed the riding ring, in which men thrilled the crowds by doing trick horseback riding.

Before the landing of the Mayflower, a form of circus was being performed in America. The Aztecs Indians performed skills and similar acts during their gatherings.

Rendezvous were held by the mountain men to sell their furs. Contests, such as knife throwing and foot races, were added for entertainment. At times, these rendezvous became quite rowdy.

If a mountain man captured and tamed a young bear, it was considered quite an accomplishment, and the bear would be shown in the village square for all to see. For the show, the mountain man would receive a scattering of coins or perhaps free drinks at the tavern.

The first complete circus in the United States was held in Philadelphia in 1793. President George Washington and his wife, Martha, attended.

When one thinks of the circus, the elephant usually comes to mind. On April 13, 1796, the first elephant, which was a female, was brought to America from Bengal. She was 3 years old when the ship’s captain purchased her for $450. He later sold her for $10,000.

After being shown all over the East Coast for many years, the elephant died in July 1818 in York, Pennsylvania.

The second elephant, which arrived in 1815, was known as “Old Bet.”

Before long, rare animals such as zebras, camels, leopards, kangaroos, tigers, jaguars and polar bears were added to Old Bet’s act. These animals were moved around the country in cages drawn by horses.  Later, when the railroads became popular, the circus took to the rails. This was the heyday of the circus.

At one time, small circuses traveled around the country.

Not many people realize that Canton, in Bradford County, once was the hub of a thriving circus. In 1887, Charles Lee and Sam Schribner’s Circus split at the close of the season, while in Horseheads, New York.  As he was passing through Canton on the way to Muncy, Lee spied a vacant house and decided to investigate the town’s possibilities as a future base of operation for the circus and his winter theater show. Lee rented the house.

In October of 1891, Lee purchased 11 acres of land east of Canton. There was a house and other buildings on the acreage. He enlarged the house; built a ring and barn, along with several buildings for the animals; and established winter training quarters for his outfit.

The circus show, which was performed in one large ring and on an elevated stage, was first class in every way. The admission price was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for kids.

After Lee sold his property, the circus moved on. Charles Lee died in 1905 and is buried in Park Cemetery.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.