It wasn't the circus of P.T. Barnum and James Bailey or that of the Ringling Brothers, but everybody loves a circus. Oh my why not? They have lions, tigers and bears! People, by the thousands, came from far and near to gather under the big top of one of the country's largest circus shows. They came to see wild animals, daring feats, and thrilling performances. Few left disappointed, except one newspaper reporter who had been to too many circuses.
The first known circus came to Dublin in the late 1860s. It was staged at the rear of the Troup House, which is on the site of the public parking lot on the first block of West Madison Street. John Robinson brought his big show into Dublin in 1900 in a time when the city was one of the largest in the state of Georgia. Hagenback and Wallace, the second largest circus in America, came to the Emerald City in 1907.
Robinson's big circus made a return to the city in 1909. Local businesses were booming and there was plenty of pocket money around. So, the promoters expected the crowds to be massive and so did the pick pockets who were slipping into town in the darkness. No one figured that the largest president in the history of the United States was going to appear at the Georgia State Fair in Macon on the very day the circus came to town. Though he was despised by the vast majority of the highly Democratic electorate, William Howard Taft, the three-hundred-pound chief executive, made it difficult for locals to decide whether to go to Macon or remain at home or to go to just another circus, which they had seen here before and would see again.
For one of the first times, the circus grounds were moved to the suburbs of the city. This time the circus grounds were laid out at the corner of Academy Avenue and Elm Street immediately in the rear of the home of R.F. Deese.
The John Robinson Circus, started by the first of four John Robinsons in 1842, finished a performance in Macon and headed down the railroad tracks toward Dublin, where the first of three sections arrived early in the morning of November 4, 1909. While the set up crews were getting the four-ring tent and animal quarters ready for the afternoon and evening shows at one and seven o'clock, the main body of the circus proceeded to deboard at the depot in three separate trains, a spectacle in of itself.
Just before high noon, a whistle blew and a grand parade of circus clowns, acrobats, animals, wagons, and performers passed through the downtown area signaling that the big show was about to begin. Six bands led the free parade of sixty cages, ten tableau wagons and some three hundred and sixty equestrians. Barkers roamed through the enormous crowd, which had been gathering since early in the morning, screaming "follow me to the circus!"
Despite the fact that the President may have upstaged Dublin's big day, five thousand people crammed into the tent for the first show. Seats were hard to find and the opening was delayed to accommodate the late comers. Though some stayed to watch the exhibition for a second time, others went home limiting the attendance to a "good crowd."
Inside the big tent was a hippodrome for the some three hundred horses and sixty ponies, which danced, pranced and raced about the sawdust-covered rings. The show featured, not one, but three, animal menageries, which featured a bloat of hippopotamuses, a crash of rhinoceroses, a sleuth of white bears, a herd of horned horses, a pod of seals, an obstinacy of buffalo, a flock of camels, a zeal of zebras, and the requisite elephant herd, leopard leap, lion pride and tiger swift. A rookery of sea lions mounted a string of three ponies juggling, balancing and throwing balls to each other and through flaming hoops.
Warren Travis, a champion heavyweight lifter, was new to the circus. It was said that Travis could lift an elephant or withstand the weight of a dozen men standing on a platform which rested on his chest. Many left shaking their heads after the strong man survived two Maxwell automobiles driving over his body. Another new act was the high dive, where a man dove from the top of the tent into a shallow pool.
King's Wild West show were advertised to feature cowboys, cowgirls and real live Mexicans and Indians or so that's what they said they were. Two companies of U.S. Cavalry performed thrilling monkey drills and acrobatic feats. The western show featured a stage coach robbery, hanging of a horse thief, a re-enactment of the Battle of Wounded Knee, and every other kind of western sport and pastime of the plains that they had the time or the people to perform.
Somewhat less than the fifty advertised clowns kept the show rolling. Troops of Japanese and Arabs, or people dressed like them, rode horses and displayed their talents to the captive audience. Costello's Riding Act, Tarant's Casting Act and the Minerva Sisters preceded the Iron Jaw Act when the Great Chambora jumped from the ceiling, struck a board and slid down a sixty-foot incline on his head. A high wire walker walked to the top of the tent and then slid down to the ground on one toe and one heal.
According to a writer for the Dublin Courier Dispatch, who thought not much of the highly billed circus, "the band was not up to average, being smaller than Robinson formerly carried." Also disappointing was the quality of the menagerie and the extent of the wild west show. The actual performances were not as wonderful as was billed according to the reporter, who complained that the wild west side show was composed of seven cowboys and a single cowgirl, deeming it more of a tame west show than a wild one. A long season of nearly daily performances had taken its toll on the horses, who were not as sleek as they had been in the past. But where it counted, the crowd enjoyed the festivities and some came back for an encore.
Howe's London Circus and Spark's Circus returned to Dublin the following year. In 1915, the Robinson Shows returned to the city for the final time. Soon the circus became just another event. Circuses meant money to the merchants and money to the coffers of the city treasury. But, they also brought out the con artists and skulkers, ready to relieve the inattentive and the gullible of their cash and valuable in the flicker of a moment.
Dublin's alderman turned a request by Spark's Circus to reduce the license tax from $200.00 and instead voted to double the tax for any circus having more than ten car loads of paraphernalia. Perhaps the final straw came in 1922, when Hagenback and Wallace returned to Dublin for an encore performance. An early morning winter rain flooded the 12th District Fairgrounds forcing a cancellation of the big event. The circus struck their tents and loaded up their animals and left town without a single show. The circus was found liable for its abandoning the children of the city by a court two years after the fact.
Although many circuses have returned to Dublin and still perform here on a regular basis, the grand circuses are gone now. So, the next time you ride down Academy Avenue and you pass by Cordell Lumber Company, look across the street and imagine that day one hundred years ago when the "Greatest Show of Earth," or the closest we ever got, came to town.