Ramblin’ Rhodes: Since 1905, circus made many stops in Augusta

A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus program from 1989 pays tribute to Gunther Gebel-Williams. SPECIAL

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey Circus gave its last performance on Sunday night, May 21, in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y., with its passing generating countless memories for circus fans.

 

Even before the Ringling Bros. circus combined its shows with the Barnum &Bailey Circus in 1919, each of the two circuses had begun making regular stops in Augusta on their tours.

The Ringling circus first came to Augusta for performances at 2 and 8 p.m. in its “big top” tent on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 1905.

Included in the attractions were two giraffes, 22 elephants, a rhinoceros, a cage of black leopards, a herd of camels and, as The Augusta Chronicle reporter noted, “a little, four-months-old, silky-furred hyena that was reared by one of the animal attendants who fed it at first with a spoon and then nursed it into vigorous youth on boiled meat.”

The reporter observed, “You see the things that are featured in many of the other traveling circuses, but they are not featured in the Ringlings.

“Startling act after startling act comes on without the usual heralding, much as a matter of course, and it is not until it is all over and you get the perspective, as it were, that you realize how splendid it all was.”

And, of special note, were the clowns.

“The antics and surprises worked by the fun makers upon the spectators yesterday,” The Chronicle recounted, “were so ludicrous that men were seen to laugh who have been known to look bored at every comic opera and farce comedy that has come to Augusta in years.”

Seven months after the Ringling Bros. circus left Augusta it would encounter a major storm in Aurora, Ill., that brought down the massive tent; killing one man from a falling support pole and another from a heart attack and injuring several others.

“Eighteen elephants in the tent at the time were prevented by the prompt attention of their keepers from stampeding,” the news account related.

It took a lot even in the early 20th century to impress Augustans with a circus.

The very first elephant ever exhibited in America came this way in May of 1799 when it was put on view “at the home of Mr. Walter Leigh near the ferry.”

The female animal being shown along the east coast, with prior stops in Philadelphia and Charleston, was reported to be 7 feet tall, 17 feet long and weighing about 3,500 pounds.

Various circuses and similar forms of entertainment shows made their way to Augusta throughout the 19th and 20th centuries with showman P.T. Barnum’s internationally-famous midget, “General Tom Thumb” (actually Connecticut-born Charles Stratton), making repeated appearances.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody also brought his Wild West Show to Augusta several times in the late 1800s and early 1900s with several of those occasions featuring sharp shooter Annie Oakley, later to be immortalized in the movie and Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun.

It is fitting to note there will be a horse sale at The Hippodrome arena in North Augusta on Saturday, May 27, beginning at noon since horses were the stars of an “Equestrian Circus” held in Augusta this very same week on Saturday, May 23, in 1801.

In March 1829, The Chronicle reported that a building had been constructed on Jackson Street (Eighth) specifically for such horse shows.

“A new building for the exhibition of equestrian performances has lately been erected on Jackson street, adjoining the Livery Stables of Mr. [William] Shannon and on the spot formerly occupied by the old one,” the newspaper account said.

“It is a spacious building, apparently well adapted to the purpose, having two semi-circular ranges of seats; one above the other as in a theatre and lobbies at the back of each. We understand that it will be opened in a few days by one of the most respectable and celebrated Equestrian Corps in the United States.”

Over the past 112 years, the circus co-founded by five brothers named Ringling in Baraboo, Wis., resulted in many unforgettable moments for Augusta-area fans.

Those magical times, of course, include the visits by Ringling’s superstar Gunther Gebel-Williams, widely regarded as the top animal trainer in history.

Among his performances with his magnificent lions, tigers, horses and elephants were in center ring in the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center (now James Brown Arena) for five shows in February of 1990 on his “Farewell Tour.”

Now circus fans everywhere have to say farewell to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum &Bailey Circus itself which truly was “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

 

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