Time Machine

The year four top-flight circuses came to Cedar Rapids

Workers set up circus tents at Bever Park in Cedar Rapids as shown in this illustration from the June 17, 1896, Evening
Workers set up circus tents at Bever Park in Cedar Rapids as shown in this illustration from the June 17, 1896, Evening Gazette. Circuses were big business in the late 1800s, with 1880 being a banner year for the shows in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette archives)
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In 1880, the largest showbiz industry in the world, the American circus, left quite an impression on Cedar Rapids — literally.

City council members and newspaper editors bickered about ruts in the streets carved by parades of circus wagons carrying everything from two-horned hairy rhinos to Nile hippopotami to 40-foot tent poles.

Among the hot topics drawing strong opinions — license fees charged by the city, the entertainment value of a circus and so-called circus riffraff problems.

By 1880, smaller circuses were joining forces to compete with big-name rivals, ushering in the golden age of circuses. They promised daring acrobatic feats, exotic animals and audaciously creative sideshow curiosities. The marketing hyperbole that boosted it all playfully tested the limits of plausibility.

That year, 35 circuses were crisscrossing the country as rail travel became more common. Animal wagons were rolled off flatcars and paraded through town, along with an envoy of performers and all manner of sensational novelties that would need to been seen again, via paid admission, to be appreciated.

Four notable circuses came to Cedar Rapids that summer. Local newspapers played a big role in communicating what each one had to offer.

June 10

Van Amburgh and Company’s New Great Golden Menagerie Circus and Colosseum was quite a mouthful, but the name had a well-known ring to it. Isaac Van Amburgh was the original lion tamer of modern times. He died in 1865, but the circus that bore his name drew on his reputation for fearless acts with big cats.

Van Amburgh was known as the first performer to stick his arm and head into a lion’s mouth, sometimes after dipping them in blood as an extra temptation for his tamed beasts. He survived bad press for using a crowbar to beat his big cats into submission — his name on a circus still sold tickets and would continue to do so until 1922.

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The Van Amburgh circus that came to Cedar Rapids was run by his longtime manager, Hyatt Frost. It boasted its three tents held “300 men and horses,” the “largest elephant in captivity” and a “double company of star performers.”

June 23

The Great Inter-Ocean Circus Museum and Menagerie was trying to make the transition to a big circus when it came to Cedar Rapids. It had just combined with the Batcheller and Doris circus and was promoting “12 first-class shows in one.”

As was common at the time, the circus’ advertising arm paid local papers for a mix of ads and supposed reprints of recent reviews. The Cedar Rapids Times ran a so-called review from the Springfield (Ill.) State Register claiming that the circus’ parade was of a quality that “has never been equaled in this city,” with a long line of chariots and zoological specimens from “every quarter of the globe.”

The circus included an elephant named Empress, which, not so coincidentally, was also billed as the “largest in the world,” as well as the “oldest and best trained.”

June 30

The Sells Brothers World’s Fair of Wonders was on the attack before it came to town.

A week before the circus was in Cedar Rapids, the Sells Brothers ran a “dis” ad in the Cedar Rapids Times, attacking the Inter-Ocean as being “notoriously dishonest,” claiming “it has grossly swindled almost every community” it visited.

The Sells Brothers also bought a massive front-page ad to promote their own circus, which included the famous stunt horseman James Robinson, a “tribe of genuine Ute chiefs and braves” and a plethora of “rare tropical exotic mammoths, kingly wild beasts and rainbow plumaged birds.”

July 17

Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth was preceded by museum-curator-turned-circus mogul P.T. Barnums’s reputation, as well as reprints of supposed reviews.

A purported Chicago Journal review snippet advised Cedar Rapids Times readers that Barnum’s “agile acrobats, daring gymnasts, expert jugglers and athletic leapers are pleasing to all lovers of manly strength and skill.” It told of feature act Zazel walking the high wire and being shot from a cannon.

The Times also ran another story from the Springfield State Register that confirmed the authenticity of Barnum’s native Zulus — which some had questioned — saying former missionaries who knew the Zulu language had talked with the performers. The account concluded that “Barnum is once more vindicated.”

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids who writes for The History Center. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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