When The Circus Was Really A Big Show


_DSC2528by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr.
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

That used to be the season for the circus to stop by in New Hampshire. One did not expect the show with exotic animals from Africa or other tropical locations to schedule a winter or even an early spring or late fall appearance, nor did one expect The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to set up their tent in a small New England town location, but around here a circus was a circus and offered a special attraction, even a “small” circus.
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The promotional material for the Jones Brothers Show, a “BIG THREE RING WILD ANIMAL CIRCUS” appearing in Laconia,New Hampshire on June 22, 1915 promised circus-goers a show that was anything but small.
Where was it held? Where else but the Pearl Street Grounds? That’s where I attended my last circus with some of my grandchildren.
The Jones Brothers Circus was advertised as “the most complete circus now traveling”. It was the year 1915 and this was “the big circus”! How big? This is how the Laconia Democrat newspaper described the coming event: “Watch for the wonderful parade- a mile long. See the open cages of wild animals; see the herds of elephants, droves of camels, leopards and grizzly bears, Bengal tigers, hyenas, wolves, zebra, and the horned horse…comprising a one hundred thousand dollar menagerie. See the long line of superb horses – the finest in the land.” The newspaper article went on by beginning five sentences with the phrase “This is the show…”, calling the show the one that is without a rival, that travels in its own steel trains, carries a whole village of people, and covers twelve acres of canvas. It stated it had ten thousand seats and boasted that the public always filled them. The horses received special recognition, having “ … the greatest high school and posing horses…high jumping champion horses imported from Ireland ” along with “…the most intrepid bareback riders, and the most fearless ladies and gentlemen riders.”
But that wasn’t all. The horses seemed to be featured, but there were other animal acts and the expected human performers.
My quick search for a circus that might be coming to New Hampshire this summer met with no success, though apparently the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus made an appearance in Manchester in May. Circuses have encountered protestors who object to the use and treatment of animals. That is certainly one of the reasons for the decline in the popularity of the circus, but, additionally, there are probably a number of competing entertainment events that were not around in 1915.
Then, as now, the specific acts could vary from circus to circus, maybe from performance to performance (certainly interest could be increased by promising an act never done in public before), but the aerial acts seem to be a necessary component of the event. So the Jones Brothers offered “…an army of aerialists in daring and difficult feats while flying in mid-air, and a sensational array of acrobatics, Royal Japanese wrestlers, tumblers, leapers, high divers, exponents of strength, shown in a startling performance of two Jiu Jitsu…”.
Another indispensable part of a circus is the involvement of the clowns, and the Jones Brothers Show claimed to have forty of them, along with beautiful dancing girls, and, to add to the excitement, chariot races.
Did you ever attend such a circus with three big rings, and so much to see? I have not and none of us who haven’t probably never will, because there will probably never be another one like it. But if you had been around on Tuesday, June 22nd, 1915, one hundred and one years ago, and happened to be in or near Laconia, NH, you could have watched the parade for free at 10am as it traveled down the streets and then you could be admitted to the big tent located at the Pearl Street Grounds at 2pm or 8pm for one of the big performances of the day.
The admission price was reportedly reduced to 25 and 35 cents to see it all.
Those must have been the “ good old days”,or maybe not if you were one of the elephants with a long memory, or you were a kid without 25 cents.
And I do wonder about that horned horse.

Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. lives in New Hampton.