Old Time Circus Parades

Old Time Circus Parades
by
Casmir Sikorski
From book published by the Portage County Historical Society (now out of print), "Casmir Sikorski Remembers" in Dec. 2005.

An almost annual event in Stevens Point used to be the free circus parade down Main Street before the main performance in a large tent on the Dixon Street baseball diamond.

We would first learn that a circus was coming to town by the large advertising signs on the billboards and a lot of barns. The owners of these barns would get a free ticket for the main performance. Usually these signs showed a large picture of a tiger, or a lion with a wide-open mouth full of sharp teeth. There also would be some pictures of some elephants, with their trunks up and some trapeze performers. These lions and tigers usually were three or four times larger than life-size. Sometimes it showed a picture of Clyde Beatty in a cage of lions and tigers. He had only a whip for protection. Sometimes it was written, "See the Bearded Lady," or "the Tattooed Man." Sometimes there was a picture of a clown, with the caption, "The World’s Funniest Clown, Emmet Kelly." He was always shown with his large shoes. And, of course, there was written in large letters, "The Greatest Show on Earth," Barnum and Bailey. The sign always mentioned the free parade in the morning. Later some other circuses were the Sells-Floto and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circuses.

Just about every year our parents would take us to watch the parade that was routed east on Main Street. This always was a big day for all of us. Most of the parades that we saw were when the family still had the 1912 Overland. It certainly must have been quite a sight to see us driving to town to watch the parade. Mother and Dad and two of us kids were in the front seat and about five or six of us piled into the back seat. That made a pretty good load for that Overland on the sandy road, which is now Highway 66.

We kids in the back seat would amuse ourselves by counting the mile posts along the highway from Jordan to Stevens Point. The woodpeckers had a hole chewed out in the four-mile post. The hole was exactly where the number four was supposed to be. All of these posts had written on them "Boston Furniture and Undertaking."

I remember one time when we were close to Point there was a loud "bang" when a rear tire blew out. Dad changed it in a hurry. We took turns pumping air into it so we wouldn’t be late for the parade. While dad was changing that tire he remarked, "Ta parada za namy nie bandzie czekac." (The parade won’t wait for us).

We parked on Fremont Street, close to Main Street, and waited a few minutes before we heard the band coming. In front of the band was a small boy pulling a large bass drum on two wheels. To my imagination that drum seemed to be six feet in diameter. The musicians were both white people and black. All of them had faded uniforms that were dark blue pants, red jackets with brass buttons, and a gold braid slanting across their chests. They had brown caps that looked like inverted milk pails. The caps had a gold tassel on top. All of the instruments were well-polished brass. Judging by the music, they were accomplished musicians. Selections that they played included, Sousa’s marches and, "Alexander’s Ragtime Band." I knew these songs well because we had piano rolls with those marches.

Behind the band came the red and gold colored wagons. The wheel spokes were painted red and white. Every wagon was pulled by three large teams of Clydesdale horses that were well decorated with large red tassels on their heads and red braids on the harness. The cages in these wagons had polar bears, black and brown bears, tigers, lions and some smaller wild animals. In one of the cages was a scantily dressed woman with a lot of cosmetics on her face. A large snake was hanging on her neck and shoulders. It appeared to be about 16 feet long and about five inches thick.

Behind this wagon were several camels, both dromedaries and bactrians. There was a gaudily dressed driver on every camel. All of the drivers’ uniforms were badly faded. About eight or ten elephants, including a small one, were following behind the camels. Every elephant was holding the tail of the one ahead of him in his trunk. Some of the elephants had a crimson blanket on its head, with a driver sitting on it.

On of the elephants momentarily let go of the tail ahead of him and tried to reach a low hanging branch. A little dog came out of the crowd on the sidewalk and started to bark at one of the elephants. A small boy pulled the dog away by the collar. It looked like that little dog was trying to start an argument with the elephants. I think the little dog was in the wrong camp to start arguing.

A few feet behind the elephants were men in uniforms leading some llamas. For some time we could hear the shrill sound of steam whistles. When the sound got closer we saw that it was a brilliantly painted calliope. A scantily dressed woman was playing the keyboard while a man, with his shirt off, was continuously shoveling coal into an upright boiler and glancing at the steam gauge. I could not tell whether the fireman was a black or a white man covered with coal dust that clung to his body on account of his sweat. I remember that I wondered to myself how the keys on the keyboard could open the different valves against the steam pressure. Still in my memory is the cloppety clop sound of the horses’ hooves on the brick pavement with which Main Street was paved at that time.

A group of clowns were following the calliope. One clown was riding on a rickety two-wheeled cart that was pulled by a sleepy burro. The clown on this cart looked as sleepy as the burro. Later I learned that the clown was the great and famous Emmet Kelly. One of the clowns had a little spider monkey tied on a small chain. This monkey had a little red jacket with yellow trim and a small black cap. It had a small tin cup so a person could put a coin in it, which it gave to the clown holding the chain.

Finally came two little girls carrying a sign, "The Flying Codonas." The trapeze troupe was following behind the sign. Later one of the Codona performers was killed when a trapeze ring broke. A broken ring is shown on her monument.

The end of the parade was followed by hawkers selling balloons with a two-foot stick for a handle.

Now the parade was over and Dad took us to the circus grounds. All the elephants were tied by one leg to pegs in the ground. Only two of the tents had been put up by then, the ticket and meal tents. Men were driving pegs into the ground for the main tent. This was when I realized by oldest brother, Ted, had been giving me a lot of bologna when he was telling me that six elephants stood in a circle, with large hammers in their trunks and they were driving the pegs into the ground. At that time I swallowed everything, lock, stock and barrel.

The circus train, consisting mostly of flat cars, was standing on a siding nearby, the smoke drifting from the smoke stack. The fire in the locomotive was banked. In a few hours it would move the circus to a nearby town.

The circus parade, once as popular as apple pie, has practically disappeared. There are few "big top" shows in the smaller cities. Similar performances can be viewed sometimes on television without leaving the comfort of an easy chair without taking a chance of risking a flat tire somewhere on a sandy road.

A July 4 circus parade was staged in Milwaukee for about 10 years, sponsored by the Schlitz Brewing Co., but this was discontinued recently. An old time circus parade was staged this year at Baraboo, home of the Circus World Museum.

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