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A look at the history of the circus in North Dakota

Posted 1/16/24 (Tue)

By Curt Eriksmoen

January 13, 2024 

For 140 years, the circus has provided entertainment for residents of North Dakota. During the early years, most of the people in a town and its surrounding region would turn out to witness some aspect of the festivities created by the circus.

In the morning, a parade led by the circus band and followed by elephants, caged animals, clowns and circus performers would proceed down the main streets of the town. Afterward, people would gather at the fairgrounds or an area designated for the circus where exhibits, exotic animals, concessions, rides, gaming events, and other curiosity items were available.

The first performances under the big top were held in the early afternoon. With breaks in between performances, the shows would continue until about 10 p.m.

The term "circus" began in old Rome when chariot races, gladiatorial combats, and other spectacles were held in an amphitheater called the Circus Maximus.

The American circus started in the 1830s when showman P. T. Barnum put up a tent in a town and provided shows. After the day's last performance, he would have the tent torn down and then travel to the next town to put on more performances.

These shows often consisted of acrobatic exhibitions, oddities, and trained animals. As Barnum's menagerie of acts and animals increased, he needed larger wagons to haul his acts and animals from town to town. This meant that the places where Barnum and his competitors held circus events needed to be close together, and the roads between those towns had to be in good condition.

The coming of the railroad allowed circus owners to greatly expand the territory where their shows could be held. On Oct. 18, 1882, the bridge between Bismarck and Mandan was completed, and trains moving across northern Dakota Territory, as well as north-south rail travel along the Red River, were available.

According to my research, W. W. Cole was the first circus to come to North Dakota. Its first stop was at Jamestown on July 10, 1883, followed by Bismarck, Valley City, Fargo and Grand Forks on each succeeding day.

William Washington Cole began his circus career in 1871 and later changed the name to the Cole Brothers Circus. Regarding their 1883 performance in Bismarck, the editor of the Tribune wrote, "Such crowds as flocked to the immense city of canvas were never before seen in the capital city, the large circus tent proper being filled at each performance with a delighted audience."

In 1884, the small (one-ring) Harris Nickel Plate Circus performed in Bismarck on June 13, and the larger (two-ring) Sells Brothers Circus was hosted in Grand Forks on June 17, Fargo on the 18th and Wahpeton on the 19th. The Fargo Argus reported that on the afternoon of the 18th, 6,000 people attended the first show. Fargo's population at the time was 10,000.

The first large (three-ring) circus to come to North Dakota was Barnum & Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth," when they entertained the citizens of Fargo on Aug. 18, 1888. Upon entering Fargo, the circus occupied 64 railroad cars. The Argus reported on the time and work that went into making this event possible.

Three months before the circus arrived, the railroad agent for the circus traveled the route, making certain that the height of all railroad bridges and tunnels was sufficient. He then negotiated with railroad officials to obtain the lowest possible rates for transporting the circus. He was followed by a booking agent who secured a hotel and/or other living accommodations, a permit for a location to pitch the large tent, a license from the city to host the circus, contracts for billboards to be printed and displayed, and food provisions.

Ten days before the show, a large, brightly painted advertising railroad car pulled into town with people aboard who had been granted permission to display posters. The car also contained a large steam calliope that played music, causing people to gather, who were then told about the upcoming circus. Finally, advertising men on horseback traveled throughout the countryside slipping fliers under the doors of every rural inhabitant for miles around.

While Barnum & Bailey concentrated more on the larger eastern cities in the U.S. and Canada, and frequently ventured to Europe, a competitor arrived on the scene in 1884 when The Ringling Brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin, founded their circus. By the late 1880s, many considered the Ringling Brothers Circus as one of the largest and best-run circuses in the country. In 1889, they purchased railroad cars and parade equipment and were ready to put their show on the road.

In June 1891, Ringling Brothers Circus shows were performed in Wahpeton, Fargo, Grafton and Grand Forks. In June 1892, they were in Fargo, Grafton and Grand Forks. In 1893, they appeared in Pembina, Grand Forks, Grafton and Lisbon. After a two-year absence, the Ringling Brothers returned in June 1896 with shows in Fargo, Grafton and Grand Forks. In 1897, they performed in Devils Lake, Grand Forks, Fargo and Wahpeton.

While in Wahpeton on June 10, the first circus fatalities occurred. During the early morning hours, while workers were putting up the big top, a severe thunderstorm arose, and lightning struck the center pole, where 22 men were working. All of the employees were injured, and two men were killed instantly. A third man later died.

Money was gathered, and a stone replica, made in the image of the shattered pole, was placed in the Wahpeton cemetery, where the bodies were also buried. It is reported that, for many years, circus workers and performers frequently visited this site.

From 1883 to 1900, nine different circuses performed in North Dakota, with Ringling Brothers being the most active by coming to the state six different years. During the first decade of the 20th century, 10 circuses crisscrossed the state, with the Ringling Brothers and Gollmar Brothers both venturing to North Dakota four times.

By 1906, many of the branch lines of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads had been completed, and the Soo Line was becoming established in many rural areas.

That year, the Gollmar Brothers Circus came to North Dakota, and besides putting on shows in the usual places, they also held performances in Carrington, Cando, Rugby, Lakota, Langdon and Mayville. During the next few years, they also traveled to Minot, Williston, Bottineau, Cooperstown, Edgeley, Hillsboro, New Rockford, Hope, Beach, Lamoure, Stanley, Crosby, Mohall, Northwood, Cavalier, Dunseith, Ellendale, Lidgerwood, Park River, Edmore, Rolla and Rollette.

The Gollmar Circus suffered a big loss on June 21, 1908, when their circus train hit another train head-on just outside of Medina. Much of their equipment was destroyed, and 24 animals were killed.

The second decade of the 20th century was the golden age of the circus in North Dakota, especially the five years leading up to World War I. In 1912 and 1916, four different circuses toured the state. There were six in 1913, five in 1914, and seven in 1915. The major circus putting on shows in North Dakota was the Al G. Barnes Circus, making stops in the state during six years of the second decade. The Yankee Robinson Show was here five times, and Ringling Brothers and Gollmar Brothers each appeared four times.

During the decade of 1910-1919, 17 different circuses appeared in North Dakota.

(This is an updated article I wrote on June 14, 2013. We will continue the North Dakota circus story next week.)